Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Court Rejects Constitutional Claims, Upholds Investigators’ Warrantless Visits to Homes of Welfare Applicants
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Welfare applicants may be required to consent to having investigators visit their homes without obtaining warrants in order to determine their eligibility, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
A divided panel held that a San Diego County program called Project 100%, in which all applicants are visited by District Attorney’s Office investigators, who turn over information gained during the visit to welfare authorities for comparison with the contents of the application, complies with the Fourth Amendment and the California Constitution.
Project 100% was initiated in 1997.
Under the program, an investigator comes to the residence of each applicant—unannounced but during normal business hours—to gather information regarding eligibility. The information is then turned over to welfare authorities for comparison with information on the applications, in order to determine that the applicant has the amount of assets claimed, has an eligible dependent child, lives in California, and is not living with the child’s other parent.
If the applicant does not cooperate, the investigator terminates the visit and reports the lack of cooperation to welfare authorities, who may then deny benefits. The rules governing the project permit investigators to view the contents of cabinets and closets, but only if the applicant specifically permits it.
The plaintiffs in the action ruled on yesterday argued that because the visits do not require probable cause, they constitute unreasonable searches under the state and federal constitutions. They also argued that the program violates a state regulation barring “[m]ass and indiscriminate” visits to welfare recipients’ homes.
The plaintiffs also challenged the county on other aspects of welfare reform, and were successful on some of those claims, but U.S. District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller rejected the constitutional attacks on Project 100%.
Senior Judge A. Wallace Tashima, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said the constitutional challenge was foreclosed by Wyman v. James (1971) 400 U.S. 309. The Supreme Court held in that case that a home visit to a welfare recipient by a social worker was not a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.
“Wyman directly controls the instant case. Here, as in Wyman, all prospective welfare beneficiaries are subject to mandatory home visits for the purpose of verifying eligibility, and not as part of a criminal investigation. The investigators conduct an in-home interview and ‘walk through,’ looking for inconsistencies between the prospective beneficiary’s application and her actual living conditions. As in Wyman, the home visits are conducted with the applicant’s consent, and if consent is denied, the visit will not occur. Also as in Wyman, there is no penalty for refusing to consent to the home visit.”
The judge rejected the argument that the Project 100% visits differ from those approved in Wyman because they are carried out by law enforcement officers rather than social workers. Where the underlying purpose is to determine eligibility and not to enforce criminal laws, Tashima said, a visit by a non-uniformed investigator during regular business hours and with the consent of the resident is indistinguishable from one by a social worker.
Even if the visit is a search, the judge said, it is reasonable given the strong public interest in limiting welfare payments to those legally entitled to them and rooting out fraud.
Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld concurred in the opinion, but Judge Raymond C. Fisher dissented.
Fisher argued that visits by law enforcement officers are distinguishable from those by social workers, so that Wyman is not controlling. The fraud investigators who conduct the visits in San Diego County, the dissenting jurist noted, are trained to enforce criminal laws, and are required to report any criminal activity they observe, whether it relates to welfare fraud or not.
“Wyman does not support the majority’s unprecedented conclusion that no search occurs under the Fourth Amendment when a district attorney fraud investigator roams through a welfare applicant’s home, scrutinizing the most intimate and private of places, looking for evidence of ineligibility, fraud and crimes wholly unrelated to the welfare application,” Fisher wrote.
The case is Sanchez v. County of San Diego, 04-55122.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company