On September 4, 2019, the Second Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Droney (joined by Judge Cabranes and Judge Raggi), affirmed a grant of summary judgment in favor of Suffolk County in a case where an individual who was required to register as a sex offender argued, in a claim for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, that home visits conducted by an organization the county had contracted with to verify his address for the registry constituted unreasonable seizures. The Court, which assumed without deciding that there was state action and that the plaintiff was “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, held that the visits were constitutional under the “special needs” doctrine.
In Jones v. County of Suffolk and Parents for Megan’s Law, No. 18-1602-cv (2d Cir. Sept. 4, 2019), the County of Suffolk had contracted with a private nonprofit organization, Parents for Megan’s Law (“PFML”), to visit the homes of people who were registered as sex offenders and to verify their addresses under the New York State Sex Offender Registration Act (“SORA”). Under SORA, individuals required to register as sex offenders must periodically mail in a completed form to verify home-address information and report to a police station to have a photograph taken for the registry. Failure to provide accurate or timely information is a felony offense. N.Y. Correct. L. § 168-t.
Due to concerns about the accuracy of the registry, Suffolk County passed a law creating a home verification program and authorizing PFML agents (retired law enforcement officers) to visit registrants at home and verify their addresses, and then refer any tips to the Suffolk County Police Department for possible investigation of registrants for failure to accurately register home-address information.
John Jones, a registered sex offender, argued that two home visits that he had been subjected to constituted unreasonable seizures. During the first home visit, PFML agents rang the doorbell of his home and were permitted by Jones’s wife to wait for him while he finished showering. When Jones came outside, the agents asked to see Jones’s license, and they accompanied him to his car to retrieve it. The agents took down some information, told Jones they might see him at his job, and then left. The following year, PFML agents again visited Jones’s home, met him outside, and went with him to his vehicle to retrieve his license.
Under the “special needs” doctrine, a temporary seizure may be conducted in the absence of a warrant or probable cause or other individualized suspicion, provided that it serves a “substantial” governmental interest whose “primary purpose” is distinct from the ordinary evidence gathering associated with crime investigation. Jones argued that the “special needs” doctrine did not apply to the visits because the visits constituted a law enforcement effort to seek evidence that the registrants had committed the crime of failing to register.
Noting that the Second Circuit previously has held that laws affecting convicted sex offenders often serve “special needs” not intended primarily to facilitate crime investigation, the Court concluded that the home verification program served a substantial governmental interest in reducing sex offender recidivism by improving the accuracy of the registry.
After determining that the verification program served a “special need,” the Court then performed the required balancing test between the government’s need and the plaintiff’s liberty interest, looking at 1) the weight and immediacy of the governmental 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 governmental interest.
The Court ruled that the government has a substantial interest in reducing sex offender recidivism that is effectively served by the program and that the deprivation of Jones’s liberty interest was limited given the nature of the detention and his more diminished expectation of privacy as a registered sex offender. Therefore, “the verification visits, which served a special need, were reasonable.”