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March 11, 2010

Supreme Judicial Court Rules Against Warrantless Search of Homeless Shelter

ACLU of Massachusetts applauds state Supreme Court decision prohibiting police searches of homeless shelters without occupants’ consent or a warrant.

BOSTON — Residents of homeless shelters must be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures under a ruling issued today by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, in which the ACLU of Massachusetts filed a friend of the court brief. The case, Commonwealth v. Porter P., affirms that constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures apply to residents of homeless shelters, just as they do to renters or students in dormitories.

The case resulted from the prosecution of a juvenile based on evidence obtained by police during a 2006 search of his locked room in a homeless shelter. The shelter manager gave consent to the search, but the occupants of the room — one of whom, a juvenile, was in the room at the time — did not.

In finding that the search violated the rights of the shelter’s occupants, the Court rejected the claim that there was less protection for transitional housing or that the shelter manager could consent to the search.

“Although transitional, the Court concluded that the room at the shelter was the family’s home and therefore entitled to the full protection of the state constitution. And, while recognizing that the shelter manager retained the right to enter the room to inspect the premises, she could not consent to a police search. That, the Court found, could only be done with a warrant,” said John Reinstein, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts.

The ACLU, along with the Committee for Public Counsel Services and other groups, filed a friend of the court brief arguing that endorsement of the search would consign the homeless to second-class status under the constitution.

“The Court has ruled today that homeless citizens are entitled to no less protection than those in our country who have housing,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Especially in today’s tough economic times, which have driven more people into poverty, we must remember that the homeless still enjoy the same constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures as everyone else. The Constitution does not distinguish between rich and poor.”

For a copy of the SJC decision, see: http://www.aclum.org/legal/commonwealth_v_porter_p/sjc_decision.pdf

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