A Victory for Privacy Rights in Shelter Living

Marisela Fermin

The U.S. court system has long provided a setting for action within the homeless community. In the landmark 1979 case Callahan v. Carey, a class-action lawsuit initiated on behalf of the homeless in New York, the court ruled that shelter was a constitutional right. However, even more than 30 years later, the legal rights of the homeless are continuing to be shaped. On March 11, 2010, as a result of Supreme Judicial Court ruling on an incident in a Roxbury, MA shelter in 2006 these rights were further defined.

In 2006, Cynthia M. Brown, the director of the Roxbury Multi-Service Center Family House Shelter, which provides temporary housing for otherwise homeless families while they attempt to secure more permanent living situations, was told that a 16 year-old boy living with his mother had possession of a gun. In response to the allegations, Brown made the decision to call the police. The next day, Brown, in the company of the police, knocked on the teenage boy’s door and announced that she would be conducting a room check. When no one answered, Brown used her master key to open the door; with her permission, the police entered the room.

The teenage boy was alone in the room. The police asked the boy to step outside. They proceeded to look for the alleged gun, which they found: a loaded Glock .40-caliber pistol. The police arrested the boy with a charge of delinquency.

Under its resident policy, the Roxbury shelter had the right to conduct random room checks for contraband. However, the policy stipulated that only the shelter’s staff or business professionals (i.e. repair men, exterminators, etc.) could enter residents’ rooms, and then only with the permission of the shelter’s director. For the police to enter, they needed to have consent from an inhabitant or co-inhabitant of the room. The court ruled that Brown, though the director of the shelter, was neither an inhabitant nor co-inhabitant of the room, and so could not legally authorize the police to enter the room. Because the search was conducted illegally, the gun could not be used as evidence to charge the boy with delinquency.

Gun or no gun, the underlying question remains: how do your rights change if you live in a shelter or other government-provided housing? Should they change? Or are you entitled to the same constitutional privileges as the average renter or homeowner?

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled “…Regardless of whether the juvenile resided in a palatial mansion or a single room in a transitional shelter, regardless of whether he owned the residence or was allowed to remain without paying rent, and regardless of whether his landlord or shelter director had a master key and could enter to ensure that he was abiding by the rules of the house, the juvenile had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his home.”

Undoubtedly, Cynthia Brown made the right decision by taking action and calling the police. Under no circumstances should one ignore allegations of a teenager with a gun (or an adult for that matter). But then again, under no circumstances should our constitutional rights be infringed upon. The Fourth Amendment states it is “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…” This case, though tragic in its own right, has advanced homeless rights one step further.






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