Sunday, December 2, 2007

Welfare Receipients and the Fourth Amendment - Revisited*

Radley Balko asks whether or not welfare applicants should forfeit their Fourth Amendment protections against searches and seizures:

That seems to be the conclusion to draw from the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear a case from San Diego, where the D.A.’s office has been sending agents to conduct suspicionless, warrantless searches on the private homes of welfare applicants.

Yes, applicants were free to refuse the searches, though I suspect that refusing a search would itself be (unofficially) enough to trigger further investigation. Refusing a search also means forfeiting welfare benefits.

Setting aside the standard libertarian discontent for welfare, I have two big problems with this: 1) the idea of "consent" is a joke, because, as I understand it, no consent is equal to no benefit, but even worse: 2) the government, in no, way, shape or form, should be allowed to use fundamental constitutional liberties as bargaining chips in exchange for government programs. One would think that the unconstitutional conditions doctrine would apply, especially in a situation where government lacks a compelling interest.

I almost blogged about this several months when this was brought to my attention via A Stitch in Haste. A quote that he used from the dissent in the relevant case, Sanchez v. County of San Diego, is posted below (my emphasis added):

The intrusion here is the unannounced search of the home of a person under no suspicion whatsoever by fraud investigators, who are required not only to question the applicant but to pry into the applicant's most private spaces -- to look through drawers, medicine cabinets, closets, garbage, and the like....

The government does not search through the closets and medicine cabinets of farmers receiving subsidies. They do not dig through the laundry baskets and garbage pails of real estate developers or radio broadcasters. The overwhelming majority of recipients of government benefits are not the poor, and yet this is the group we require to sacrifice their dignity and their right to privacy. This situation is shameful.

Fraud may be a problem, as one of the commenters at A Stitch in Haste suggests. Fair enough. No one has a right to engage in fraud. However, if fraud is a sufficient enough reason to stand the Fourth Amendment on its head for one group, why would this principle not apply to Social Security recipients or farmers or the families of college students who are looking to get government loans? Is combating fraud in any other entitlement program any less important than it is in San Bernandino County?

The solution is a simple one. As Kip stated in his original post (and worth quoting since I can't explain it better myself):

Here's a better jurisprudence: Innocent until proven guilty. If and when San Diego authorities have probable cause to suspect welfare fraud, then let them proceed to investigate, by way of a warrant issued by a neutral magistrate -- just as they would with any other crime.

It should never be any other way - ever.

* For what it's worth, the reason this is "revisited" is because, although I ultimately did not blog about it, via the post at A Stitch in Haste, I did spend some time reading the Ninth Circuit opinion, some of the opinions of the cases cited and other relevant text. It did pique my interest in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence and the unconstitutional conditions doctrine. Sadly, I was hoping to write a follow-up post on an announcement that the Supreme Court would take this case, but as that is not happening, I can only voice my discontent.


KipEsquire said...

Cheers... =)

East Coast Libertarian said...

Likewise my friend. Hope all is well.