...why I haven't been blogging more: that thing I said before about the dead computer? Yeah, I wasn't kidding. On Saturday morning, two days before moot court briefs were due, I experienced, for the first time, the Blue Screen of Death. I spent the next two days in front of the public computers in the libs, which, let me tell you, is not an ideal way to write. (I wanted to take that 2nd floor door off its goddamn hinges.) The Doctor is coming on Saturday to take a look at it, and hopefully by that night we'll be up and running again.
But! Let's be glass-half-full here. The brief is done! Since I know you're so interested in Fourth Amendment questions, here's a taste.
QUESTION PRESENTED FOR REVIEW
May a county government, in order to protect the public trust and the integrity of its welfare program from the pervasive threat of fraud, condition the receipt of public welfare aid upon an applicant’s compliance with an interview program and residential visit designed to verify her eligibility for aid, consistent with the Fourth Amendment?
SUMMARY OF THE ARGUMENT
Project 100%, San Diego County’s considered response to a congressional mandate to protect the integrity of its welfare program, is reasonable, effective, and constitutional under the Fourth Amendment.
Under settled Supreme Court precedent in Wyman v. James, a home visit undertaken as part of a welfare program is not a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. San Diego County’s eligibility visits under Project 100% share the material elements of Wyman, compelling the conclusion that the eligibility visit is not a search. First, the visits are part of a rehabilitative welfare program with the purpose of distributing public assistance benefits to eligible individuals, and the public has a corresponding interest in ensuring that its funds support their intended beneficiaries. The Project 100% eligibility visit is not a criminal investigation, and the warrant requirement poses serious administrative difficulties in the non-criminal welfare context. Finally, the Project 100% visits and the Wyman visits share relevant procedural safeguards that protect applicants against excessive intrusions on their privacy. Although the Wyman opinion seems unorthodox, it fits neatly within the Supreme Court’s prior and subsequent Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, and there is no reason to justify overruling settled precedent.
Even if Wyman’s first holding is inapposite to this case and the Project 100% eligibility visit is a search, it is a reasonable search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Controlling precedents, recently affirmed by this Court, indicate that reasonableness of non-criminal searches may be evaluated by either the special needs analysis or the totality of the circumstances analysis. Under either approach, Project 100% is constitutional.
The Project 100% eligibility visit fulfills the threshold requirements of the special needs framework because the County’s non-criminal purpose of protecting the integrity of its welfare program from fraud is a valid special need unrelated to criminal law enforcement, and the warrant and individualized suspicion requirements are impracticable and ineffective in the welfare context. The County provides ample notice to the applicant that eligibility visits are required, and only conducts the visit with the applicant’s express and continuing consent. The scope of the visit is also limited: its focus is entirely on substantiating particular facts that are dispositive for eligibility and typically takes no more than 20 minutes to complete. The visit is therefore but a minimal intrusion on the applicant’s legitimate expectation of privacy, and it is substantially outweighed by the government’s need to provide for the integrity of its welfare program, prevent fraud, and ensure the proper distribution of public funds.
Alternatively, the Project 100% eligibility visits are reasonable under the Court’s general totality of the circumstances framework. Wyman controls here as well, and its traditional balancing of interests, which predated the Court’s explicit development of the special needs analysis, fits squarely within the Court’s subsequent Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. For the same reasons applied to Wyman’s first holding—the non-criminal nature of the visit, the procedural safeguards to protect applicants’ privacy interests, and the County’s valid and weighty interest in protecting its welfare program against fraud—the totality of the circumstances indicate that the Project 100% eligibility visit is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
Even if the Court goes against the great weight of its precedent to find that the Project 100% eligibility visit is an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment, San Diego County should still prevail because the applicants have given voluntary and valid consent to the visit. No coercion or threat of force is present; the applicant is free to terminate the visit at any time, and may forego the visit entirely by refraining from applying for government aid. And because condition of receiving public assistance is reasonably related to the benefit, the overcited doctrine of unconstitutional conditions does not apply in this case.