On September 4, 2019, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided Jones v. County of Suffolk et al.[i], in which the court examined whether visits to Jones’ residence, for the purpose of verifying his address, as a person on the sex offender registry, violated the Fourth Amendment.
In Jones, the County of Suffolk contracted with a private, non-profit group named Parents for Megan’s Law (PFML) for the purpose of conducting home visits to verify the addresses of registered sex offenders that are listed on the New York State Sex Offender Registry. In July of 2013, the Suffolk County Police Department sent a letter to all registered sex offenders to notify them of upcoming home visits by PFML for the purpose of address verification. In August of 2013, Jones, who was a registered sex offender, received a home visit from PFML. Jones was in the shower when they arrived and they waited on the walkway in front of Jones’ house for fifteen minutes for him to come outside and meet them. The PFML employees asked for Jones’ identification and he retrieved it from his car, which was parked on the street. They verified his address and left. In July of 2014, PFML returned to Jones’ residence and again verified his address. This interaction took approximately two minutes.
Jones subsequently filed suit against PFML and Suffolk County and alleged that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated by the home visits as an unlawful search and seizure. The district court granted summary judgment to the county and PFML. Jones appealed the grant of summary judgment to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
At the outset, the court of appeals stated that they would assume, without deciding, for the sake of this case, that the home visits by PFML at the request of Suffolk County did in fact constitute a search or seizure under the Fourth Amendment. This means that the court did not decide whether or not the Fourth Amendment was implicated by the home visits; rather, the court assumed that it did so that they could then decide whether one of the exceptions to the Fourth Amendment applied in this case.
The exception that the Suffolk County and PFML relied upon, as did the district court, was the “special needs” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s probable cause and warrant requirement. The court then discussed the law related to the special needs exception and stated
[A] seizure amounting to an arrest “is not reasonable unless it is accomplished pursuant to a judicial warrant issued upon probable cause.” Id. Similarly, a stop, during which a person is seized only briefly, usually for purposes of crime prevention and investigation, is not reasonable unless supported by facts affording a “particularized and objective basis for suspecting legal wrongdoing.” United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273 (2002) (internal quotation marks omitted); see Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21-25 (1968). Nonetheless, courts have allowed limited exceptions to these general seizure rules. Under one such exception, the special needs doctrine, courts have “recognize[d] as constitutionally reasonable . . . temporary seizures that serve ‘special needs beyond the normal need for law enforcement,’ where ‘the warrant and probable-cause requirement are impracticable.'” Berg v. Kelly, 897 F.3d 99, 106 (2d Cir. 2018) (quoting Skinner, 489 U.S. at 619) (internal alteration omitted).
The special needs doctrine applies only in “exceptional circumstances.” New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 351 (1985) (Blackmun, J., concurring); see also Chandler v. Miller, 520 U.S. 305, 309 (1997) (describing the special needs exception as “closely guarded”). To satisfy the special needs test, the government must identify a substantial non-law enforcement interest justifying “a Fourth Amendment intrusion.” Chandler, 520 U.S. at 314. If the government meets that burden, then we “undertake a context-specific inquiry, examining closely the competing private and public interests advanced by the parties.” Id. at 306. Where the liberty interests implicated by the seizure are minimal, and “where an important governmental interest furthered by the intrusion would be placed in jeopardy by a requirement of individualized suspicion, a [seizure] may be reasonable despite the absence of such suspicion.” Id.[ii]
The court of appeals then set out to apply the above rules to the issues before them in this case.
Issue One: Did the home, residence verification visits serve a proper “special need?”
The court of appeals first noted three important principles regarding whether a “need” qualifies as a “special need.” The three principles were as follows:
- To qualify as a special need, the governmental interest in the objective must be “substantial”; that is, “sufficiently vital to suppress the Fourth Amendment’s normal requirement of individualized suspicion.” Chandler, 520 U.S. at 318.[iii]
- In determining whether a search or temporary seizure served a special need, courts look to whether it “serves as its immediate purpose an objective distinct from the ordinary evidence gathering associated with crime investigation.” United States v. Amerson, 483 F.3d 73, 81 (2d Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted).[iv]
- A policy may have “multiple purposes,” including one “directly related to crime control,” but so long as the “‘primary purpose’ is a government interest other than crime control . . . the mere fact that crime control is one purpose . . . does not bar the application of the special needs doctrine.” Lynch v. City of New York, 589 F.3d 94, 102 (2d Cir. 2009) (Lynch I) (internal quotation marks omitted).[v]
- The focus of the “primary purpose” inquiry is on the “immediate objective of the challenged . . . program, not its ultimate goal.” Lynch v. City of New York, 737 F.3d 150, 158 (2d Cir. 2013) (Lynch II)[vi]
The court then examined two cases from the Second Circuit that provide examples of what type of actions have been held to qualify as “special needs.” In Doe v. Cuomo[vii], the court upheld an extended period of registration under the Sex Offender Registry Act (SORA) and held that any searches or seizures required by SORA serve “special needs” such as protecting future potential victims. The court also held that the purpose was not to solve a specific crime or general interest in crime control. Similarly, in Roe v. Marcotte[viii], the court upheld a law requiring registered sex offenders to provide a DNA sample as a “special need,” as it served the purpose of deterring sex offenders from future crimes and solving future crimes.
The court then noted that the residency verification rule being enforced in Jones’ case also served a special need similar to the needs in the two cases above, particularly, reducing recidivism among sex offenders by improving the accuracy of the Sex Offender Registry.
The court also noted that stated purpose in the contract between Suffolk County and PFML stated that their purpose was “to verify residency reporting of all registered sex offenders” because it has been proven that an accurate registry reduces recidivism. Additionally, an accurate registry assists parents in deciding with whom to allow their children to associate. The court also found it significant that, over a three-year period, the PFML referred “hundreds” of failures to register proper addresses to the police, yet the police only arrested nineteen people after investigation. In fact, the police department’s practice was to investigate each complaint from PFML and develop their own probable cause to believe a crime was committed. There were exceptions contained in the law regarding registration of address so having an incorrect address was not per se a violation of law.
In light of the above discussion, the court of appeals then held
In sum, the program advances the government’s substantial interest in reducing sex offender recidivism by improving the accuracy of the registry. Thus, the program serves a special need “beyond the normal need for law enforcement.” Lynch II, 737 F.3d at 157 (internal quotation marks omitted).[ix]
Issue Two: Did the balance between the special need and the rights of Jones weigh in favor of government?
Regarding this issue, the court of appeals first stated
[T]he fact that the government has a ‘special need’ does not mean the . . . seizure is ‘automatically, or even presumptively’ constitutional.” Amerson, 483 F.3d at 83 (quoting Illinois v. Lidster, 540 U.S. 419, 425 (2004)). Instead, we must balance the government’s need against the plaintiff’s liberty interest to determine whether the alleged seizures were reasonable. We balance four factors:
(1) the weight and immediacy of the government interest; (2) the nature of the liberty interest allegedly compromised by the detention; (3) the character of the deprivation imposed by the detention; and (4) the efficacy of the detention in advancing the government interest. Berg v. Kelly, 897 F.3d at 108 (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted); see also Lidster, 540 U.S. at 427-28.[x]
The court of appeals then sought to apply and balance the facts of Jones’ case to the factors above. As to the first factor, the weight and immediacy of the government interest, the court determined the facts weighed heavily in favor of Suffolk County and PFML. The government’s interest was to protect children by reducing recidivism of sex offenders, and to provide an accurate registry so people could decide with whom to associate. As such, the court stated the facts weighed in favor of the defendants.
Regarding the second factor, the nature of the liberty interest allegedly compromised by the detention, the court noted that specific groups have a lesser expectation of privacy, based on their previous conduct and notice they receive by the government. Convicted sex offenders have a reduced expectation of privacy based on laws intended to reduce recidivism and protect society, and the offenders are on notice of this fact. The court of appeals stated that Jones enjoyed a reduced expectation of privacy in his address information and the brief seizure involved in obtaining that information through a home visit. Therefore, this factor weighed in favor of Suffolk County and PFML.
Regarding the third factor, the character of the deprivation imposed by the detention, the court noted that detention to obtain Jones’ address was brief, lasted “mere minutes,” did not ask for any information other than to verify his address, and did not subject him to touching, threats or rudeness. As such, the court held that this factor weighed in favor of Suffolk County and PFML.
Last, as to the fourth factor, the efficacy of the detention in advancing the government interest, the court noted program was highly effective in that it identified thirteen percent (“hundreds”) of sex offenders who had not registered their correct addresses and corrected that issue. Thus, the program was highly effective. Therefore, this weighed in favor of Suffolk County and PFML.
The court of appeals then held
Balancing those factors, we conclude that the district court correctly determined that the verification visits, which served a special need, were reasonable, even if they constituted seizures. Accordingly, Jones has not asserted a constitutional deprivation for the purposes of his § 1983 claim and it fails as a matter of law.[xi]
Thus, the court of appeals affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Suffolk County and PFML.
[i] No. 18-1602-cv (2nd Cir. Decided September 4, 2019)
[ii] Id. at 14-16 (emphasis added)
[iii] Id. at 16
[iv] Id. at 16-17
[v] Id. at 17
[vii] 755 F.3d 105 (2nd Cir. 2014)
[viii] 193 F.3d 72 (2nd Cir. 1999)
[ix] Jones at 24
[x] Id. at 25 (emphasis added)
[xi] Id. at 29 (emphasis added)