State agents come to your door and tell you they are going to do a “walk through” of your home, poke around behind closed doors, and rifle through your things. You ask if they have a warrant. No, they tell you, but it’s in your interests to let them in. Is this a scene from a bad movie about the East German Stasi? No, it’s standard procedure in some locales when a person applies for welfare benefits.
This article discusses “home visits” of welfare applicants. For information about welfare fraud, check out Welfare Fraud.
In pre-Industrial Age Britain and the U.S., local governments funded “poorhouses” to provide very minimal shelter to and exercise control over the poor. These institutions were often little more than forced labor factories. In the early 20th century, the model shifted and private charities became the primary source of assistance to the poor. These organizations sent “friendly visitors” to the homes of the poor, bearing food, medical aid, and some financial aid. But one other role of these friendly visitors was to verify that their charges were among the “deserving poor”—that is, truly needy.
During the Great Depression, the government again took on a social welfare role, and state welfare programs as we know them first emerged. These programs adopted the “friendly visitor” approach, but because it was the government “visiting,” the “visits” started to look like searches.
A constant in this history is the dismissive view of the privacy interests of the poor, with the underlying philosophy that the aid organization’s legitimate interest in verifying need outweighed the needy person’s expectation of privacy.
Under modern welfare programs in some jurisdictions, applicants for benefits must submit to a “home visit” by an investigator. During the “visit,” the investigator walks through the applicant’s home, opening closets, checking trash bins, and even examining laundry hampers. The purpose is to determine that the applicant has the assets claimed in the application, has custody of a dependent child, and is not living with another adult who may provide income to the household that would make the applicant ineligible for welfare.
In some cities, the investigators are employees of the district attorney’s office and are empowered to report evidence of criminal activity found in a home visit to the D.A.’s office for possible criminal prosecution.
Home visits amount to warrantless searches, according to welfare activists and attorneys for applicants. Courts have held that the home visits are constitutional because they are “reasonable” under the “special needs” exception to the prohibition on unreasonable searches.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches. This has been construed to mean that the state must have probable cause that the person searched is engaged in criminal activity. Clearly, an automatic “home visit” search of a welfare applicant triggered solely by the welfare application is not supported by probable cause. But, an exception has been carved into the Fourth Amendment by the courts.
Under certain circumstances, a search without probable cause may be constitutional according to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court defined such a “special need” as one that is “beyond the normal need for law enforcement” and makes obtaining a warrant and meeting the probable cause requirement “impracticable.” (Griffin v. Wisconsin, 483 U.S. 868, 873 (1987).) In 2006, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld San Diego County’s “home visit” searches of welfare applicant homes based on the Griffin “special needs” exception. (Sanchez v. San Diego County, 464 F.3d 916 (9th Cir. 2006).) The stated purpose of the home visits—to verify eligibility for welfare benefits—was a valid special need, according to the court. The fact that evidence of possible criminal activity might be uncovered and reported to the D.A. (leading to criminal prosecutions) was merely incidental, as far as the Ninth Circuit was concerned.
Jurisdictions with home visit programs condition the receipt of benefits on the applicant’s consent to home visits. These welfare agencies will deny benefits to an applicant who refuses to consent to a home visit. Courts have long held that an individual may constitutionally consent to even an unreasonable search, so long as the consent is freely given. Advocates for welfare recipients argue that the home visit consent requirement is not freely given because benefits hinge on the consent. Such arguments have been rejected by courts, however.
If a welfare applicant is seeking benefits in a jurisdiction with a home visit program, he or she will have to submit to that intrusion in order to receive benefits.
If you have questions about whether or not the welfare department where you live requires welfare applicants to submit to home visits, talk to a lawyer. Low-cost and free legal advice is available in many areas through the local Legal Aid Society. Your county and/or state bar association may also have programs to provide legal assistance to low-income individuals. And, many law schools administer reduced-fee clinics to provide advice to low-income clients.