Washington court rules that even if your home is a tent, you have a right to privacy inside it

Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Every person has the right to privacy in their home, regardless of whether that home is a lean-to on a roadside or a mansion on a mountain.
By ruling that a homeless man camping on public land has the same right to privacy inside his tent as others have in their homes—and that police can’t enter without a warrant— the Washington Court of Appeals this month affirmed this right.

The case, State of Washington v. Pippin, involves William Pippin, who was living in a shelter he’d fashioned by draping a tarp over a fence and a guardrail in Vancouver, Washington, when he was visited one morning by police. When officers rapped on the tarp, Pippin told them he was just waking up and would come out shortly. 

Instead of waiting for Pippin to emerge, officers lifted the tarp, revealing Pippin sitting up in his makeshift bed; as Pippin got out of bed, officers saw a bag containing methamphetamine. By entering Pippin’s tent without permission, police conducted an unlawful warrantless search of his home, the ACLU-WA said in friend of the court brief in the case. The State Court of Appeals agreed: Pippin’s rights were violated under Article I, section 7 of the Washington constitution, which mandates that “[n]o person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.”

One’s home has throughout history been seen as the ultimate bulwark against government intrusion, the court said in its decision. Because a person’s home is likely to contain intimate details of their life that must not be revealed against their will, the law protects homes from warrantless searches.

But one need not occupy a traditional home to have this privacy right. Courts have also found that, for people who are homeless, closed baggage and containers are protected areas.
Pippin lived in a lean-to, but that a home is temporary does not diminish the right to privacy within it, “nor does the flimsy and vulnerable nature of an improvised structure. For the homeless, those may often be the only refuge for the private in the world as it is,” the court said.
The court rebuked the State’s assertion that Pippin’s homelessness was a choice: “To call homelessness voluntary, and thus unworthy of basic privacy protection is to walk blind among the realities around us.”

Such an argument would wrongly penalize people for being poor by stripping from them the privacy rights the law guarantees everyone else.
“Our Constitution means something better,” the court said.

To illustrate what that might look like, the court quoted “King Lear,” who, in Act 3, Scene 4, has been stripped of his power and wealth, and faces a raging storm.
At last Lear sees how poor and homeless people in his Kingdom suffer as they struggle to endure the elements. Remorseful for his blindness to their plight, Lear implores those in power not to follow his lead, but to instead, “Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou mayst . . . show the heavens more just.”

The lessons learned by Shakespeare’s tragic hero should not be lost on us. The law exists, the court said, not only to prevent anarchy and grease the wheels of our economy, but also to “bring signs of justice amid our thirsts and furies and, in doing so, remind us of our humanity.”
Doug Klunder and Nancy Talner of the ACLU of Washington wrote the brief, which was also signed by Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, Outsiders Inn, and Real Change.