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Adam Liptak, a columnist for The New York Times, comments today on San Diego County’s program for verifying eligibility of applicants for its social assistance programs. He writes about the district attorney’s investigators who visit welfare applicants, unannounced, to nose around their homes.

Of course, applicants aren’t forced to let the investigators in. But if they don’t, they don’t receive the benefits.

In the column (subscription only), Liptak chats with Luis Aragon, a deputy district attorney, who said the county has found a balance between intrusive investigations and the need for verification.

But the methods Aragon then describes remain quite aggressive, Liptak says:

The main problem, Mr. Aragon said, is the “alleged absent parent.” Applicants sometimes claim to be single mothers when there is a man around the house, and investigators are on the lookout for that man.

“They’re looking for boxer shorts in a drawer,” said Jordan C. Budd, a law professor who represented the plaintiffs when he was legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego. “They’re looking for medicine in a man’s name.”

Lawyers have sued on behalf of applicants who feel they’ve unfairly had to surrender some Fourth Amendment rights (those that protect against unreasonable government searches). Courts have so far disagreed, Liptak writes.

In one such case filed in September, Sanchez v. County of San Diego, a divided federal appeals court panel of three judges upheld the program meant to combat welfare fraud. And the full appeals court declined to rehear the case in April.

Here’s a bit of the opinion from a dissenting judge in April, as reported by Liptak:

One of the dissenting judges, Harry Pregerson, writing for himself and six colleagues in April, suggested one sort of argument that might be promising. He said there was a double standard at work.

“The government does not search through the closets and medicine cabinets of farmers receiving subsidies,” Judge Pregerson wrote. “They do not dig through the laundry baskets and garbage pails of real estate developers or radio broadcasters.”

Only the poor, he said, must “give up their rights of privacy in exchange for essential public assistance.”

KELLY BENNETT

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