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Law School Case Brief

Wyman v. James - 400 U.S. 309


Except in certain carefully defined classes of cases, a search of private property without proper consent is "unreasonable" unless it has been authorized by a valid search warrant. One's Fourth Amendment protection subsists apart from his being suspected of criminal behavior.


After Plaintiff Barbara James, an Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) recipient, refused to allow a caseworker to visit her in her home, her benefits were then terminated, as required by state statutes and policies governing the AFDC program. Argueing that the home visit was a search that violated her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights unless it was made pursuant to her consent or to a search warrant supported by probable cause, James brought a class action under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 seeking injunctive and declaratory relief against defendants, commissioners of city and state social service departments, to prevent the termination of AFDC benefits for failure to consent to the entry into her home of officials of the Department of Social Services.  A three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York held several New York laws and rules unconstitutional because they required respondent, Aid to Families with Dependent Children plaintiff to submit to a home visit for continued assistance under the AFDC program. Defendants, the city and state social services commissioners, filed a petition for certiorari review.


Was there a violation of James’ constitutional rights when New York terminated her AFDC benefits when she refused the caseworker visit?




The United States Supreme Court held that the home visitation as structured by the New York statutes and regulations violated no right guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. The home visit was not a search by the social service agency in the Fourth Amendment meaning of that term because it was not forced, and the AFDC beneficiary's denial of her consent was not a criminal act. The visit did not fall within the Fourth Amendment's proscription because it was not unreasonable: the home visit was not a criminal investigation, was not made by police, privacy was emphasized, and the social services agency had the right to verify the actual residence and physical presence in the home.

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