Every person has a right to privacy in their home, no matter what that home looks like

Thursday, December 22, 2016

House, lean-to, or mansion: When it comes to privacy in one’s home, the Constitution doesn’t discriminate. That’s the principle at stake in a friend of the court brief filed by the ACLU of Washington in a case involving the privacy rights of people who lack stable, permanent housing.

William Pippin was living in a shelter he’d fashioned by draping a tarp over a fence and a guardrail in Vancouver, Washington, when he was visited one morning by police. When officers rapped on the tarp, Pippin told them he was just waking up and would come out shortly.  

Instead of waiting for Pippin to emerge, officers lifted the tarp, revealing Pippin sitting up in his makeshift bed; as Pippin got out of bed, officers saw a bag containing methamphetamine. The trial court granted Pippin’s motion to suppress the methamphetamine as the product of an unconstitutional warrantless search. That decision is now being appealed.

The brief filed by the ACLU in State of Washington v. William Pippin asserts that the trial court had it right; police officers violated Pippin’s constitutional right to privacy by intruding in his home, and thus the results of their findings are not permissible in court.

Article 1 Section 7 of the Washington State Constitution explicitly protects the home as a place where individuals must be free from government intrusion. 

People who lack adequate housing still create for themselves homes, erecting what shelter they can and using what bedding they can find. Many return to these dwellings night after night, year after year. Some of these living spaces are grouped together, forming communities like the one in which Pippin lived.

Just because these residences are improvised does not mean that the people inhabiting them have no residence at all. Privacy is not a privilege available only to the well-off and middle classes, but is instead a right shared by the “poorest” among us.

“Every person has a constitutional right to privacy within his or her home, whether that home is a lean-to on a roadside or a mansion on a mountain,” said ACLU-WA Privacy Counsel Doug Klunder, who wrote the brief.

When the officers lifted Pippin’s tarp, they acted as impermissibly. Without authority of law to thus intrude on Pippin’s privacy, the search was unconstitutional and the evidence must be suppressed.