In an important criminal law decision regarding the right to privacy, the Washington Court of Appeals recently decided that the police could not enter a homeless person’s tent/tarp shelter without a warrant. The decision recognizes that under Washington’s Constitution, Article I, §7, a homeless person should have the same rights to privacy in his makeshift shelter that other Washington residents have in their homes or apartments.
The case arose out of the City of Vancouver’s attempt to clear out a homeless area by changing the enforcement policies regarding Vancouver’s anti-camping ordinance. Police were visiting homeless people and notifying them that they would be subject to arrest and prosecution if they were found camping on public property between 6 AM and 9:45 PM. Police were trying to notify the homeless man in this case about the new policy. In their view, the man was somewhat slow to respond, so the police then lifted the flap of his tent/tarp and saw that he was in possession of methamphetamine.
He challenged the search of his tent on constitutional grounds. The trial court determined that he did have a privacy interest in his shelter, and that the police had not demonstrated any facts that would allow a warrantless entry into his shelter. The State of Washington appealed.
In a long and well-reasoned decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that the homeless man did have a right to privacy in his tent. They sent the case back to the Superior Court for additional findings about whether the police had a realistic concern for their own safety which might justify the entry on an emergency basis.
The decision, State v. Pippen, can be found at the Court’s web page, www.courts.wa.gov.