ACLU Stops Suspicionless Home Searches in Etowah County, Alabama
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, and the law firm Jaffe & Drennan reached a unique settlement Friday in Doe v. Entrekin with the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office, stopping its officers from conducting unannounced, suspicionless, and warrantless searches of a family’s home. The sheriff’s office had been performing such searches at the homes of everyone registered for a sexual offense, without exception, ostensibly to verify their residence. Similar programs exist across Alabama and the nation. Under the terms of the settlement, the sheriff’s office will conduct all in-person residence verifications outside a registrant’s home. Officers may not enter the home without the registrant’s written consent at the time of the verification, unless the officers have a warrant or an emergency makes entry necessary.
“The officers had absolutely no authority for these traumatic invasions of their privacy,” said Brandon Buskey, ACLU attorney. “Our plaintiffs’ home had been searched numerous times. The registrant has always complied with the state law, and there has never been any reason to believe otherwise. Through this settlement, we have placed important limits on the sheriff’s office’s power in Etowah County that we hope to see throughout the state.”
The ACLU’s clients, a family living in Etowah County, were subjected to the sheriff’s office searches because one family member is a registrant. The sheriff’s office conducted these searches even though this plaintiff registers in person at the sheriff’s office four times a year in accordance with state law – a requirement he must fulfill for the rest of his life; the offense occurred when he was 14 years old; he is not on probation or parole; and the state of Alabama determined he is at low risk of reoffending.
The settlement requires the sheriff’s office to make additional changes for registrants who, like the plaintiff, committed their offenses as juveniles, who are no longer on probation or parole, and whom the state has determined to be low risk. For these registrants, the sheriff’s office will be limited to quarterly phone verifications after an initial in-person interview. Officers may conduct subsequent in-person verifications outside the home only if they cannot reach the registrant by phone within the quarter after leaving a message, or if there is reason to believe the registrant is not complying with state law. To protect registrants’ privacy, officers conducting such in-person verifications must be wearing civilian clothing and using an unmarked car.
“For low-risk juveniles, our settlement requires officers to contact the person by phone first, and only if that proves unsuccessful over the course of three months can the officers talk to the person outside the home,” Susan Watson, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, explained. “The settlement is a significant improvement over the old way: demanding entry into a family’s house and threatening arrest if they don’t comply.”
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