Constitutional Law

Minnesota Tenants Challenge Nosy Housing Inspectors

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Last week the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed to hear a case in which the Institute for Justice is challenging a local ordinance that lets housing inspectors roam people's apartments to make sure they're up to code. Red Wing, Minnesota, began requiring the inspections in 2006 as a condition of granting rental licenses to landlords. If a landlord or occupant does not agree to an inspection, the city can ask a judge for a warrant. But because the visits are classified as "administrative inspections," the city does not have to show there is any reason to suspect that a particular building is substandard. Armed with administrative warrants, inspectors can poke their noses into tenants' bedrooms, bathrooms, closets, and even, until a recent revision of the law, refrigerators and medicine cabinets. Although they are ostensibly looking for hazards that need to be corrected, they are expected to report evidence of certain crimes—including methamphetamine production, child abuse, elder abuse, and pet abuse—to the police. Inspectors thus can serve as proxies for the police, who would not be allowed to search people's homes without probable cause to support a criminal search warrant.

The Institute for Justice represents a group of landlords and tenants who have successfully resisted three warrant applications and argue that Red Wing's ordinance should be overturned on Fourth Amendment grounds. A judge and a state appeals court ruled that they won't have standing to mount such a challenge until the city succeeds in obtaining inspection warrants that apply to them. I.J. says the plaintiffs should not have to go through the expensive and time-consuming process of unsuccessfully resisting warrant applications before they can challenge the ordinance. It argues that they should have been allowed to seek a judgment regarding the law's constitutionality when they challenged the warrant applications and that at this point the realistic threat of unconstitutional searches is enough to give them standing. That is the issue the state Supreme Court has agreed to consider.

"Under Red Wing's rental inspection ordinance," I.J. notes, "it is easier for the government to force its way into the homes of law-abiding citizens than it is to search the home of a suspected criminal." Even people who are not worried about a stash of pot or porn might object to letting bureaucrats inspect the details of their lives. "Some people do not want government agents wandering through their homes," I.J. notes. "And for good reason. You can tell a lot about someone just from a quick walk-through of their home. According to the landlords in this case, even quick visits to rental homes reveal, among other things, a person's religious beliefs; whether they are cohabitating; whether they are messy or neat, reclusive or lonely; how much money they have; their personality; their hobbies; their social circles; and their peculiar cultural traditions and habits." The Fourth Amendment questions raised by the case have nationwide implications, I.J. says, since "these inspection programs are popping up like weeds all over Minnesota,  and similar laws are appearing everywhere from California to Indiana to Pennsylvania."

I.J. has background information and documents related to the case here. In a recent column, Radley Balko described how police piggyback on administrative inspections to conduct searches when they don't have enough evidence for a warrant.

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  1. I call Bullshit on that. If it’s for “administrative” purposes, or in other words regulatory purposes, then it isn’t a warrant, and they don’t have the right to bust into people currently-being-resided-in homes.

    1. I think this is true. I did some volunteer work in Cabrini Green in Chicago, and I’m pretty sure I heard the same thing there.

      1. Yeah that’s what I mean. I mean what the hell is this shit? Isn’t a warrant only for crimes? I’ve never heard of anything like this? A warrant, to execute economic regulations? It’s screwy. Never heard of it. Can anyone even cite precedent? I’m amazed the judges are allowing this. As much as I’d disappointedly rule in favor of regulatory power were I a judge, I wouldn’t let that shit fly.

        1. Actually, this sort of thing goes on all the time.

          And Edwin’s just the sort of person to aid and abet it. Once you give the government the inspection authority, it will and is used in this way, everywhere.

          1. ” Once you give the government the inspection authority, it will and is used in this way, everywhere.”

            Really? I did tons of stuff today without getting inspected.

          2. It has been going on more than people know. A friend of mine came home for work and found a ticket laying on dining room table, the ticket was for “unsanitary conditions”. They inspected his apartment when he was at work. He was pissed of course, when to court and it was filled with people with similar tickets. The judge told him to pay the $200 fine or pay more later. He didn’t have the cash to properly fight it and he might not have won anyway.

            1. “I know conditions were unsanitary because I got sick from eating your food.” — The Inspector

              Anyway, say they get the ban on administrative inspections. What’s to stop them from sending in the fire dept. on phony claims of a fire (as Jim Harris had done to him)? Or the paramedics? And if they have to resort to those, they might just break & enter. Maybe it’s better to give them the keys, since they don’t have to break the door or window then.

    2. I might have missed it in the article, but I suspect that the police use the results of the search inspection to get “probable cause” in order to get a real warrant to go bust down the door and shoot the dog.

    3. Hey, Edwin, over in another thread you were calling us childish for asserting our property rights.NOW, you’re defending them.

      Which is it?

  2. Somebody should get a warrant to search Sullum’s brain for new ideas.

    1. ARFARFARFARFARFARFARFARFARFARFARF!!!!!!!!!!

  3. I think housing inspectors should be executed.

  4. “granting rental licenses to landlords”?

    WTF is that? Oh Minnesota California Pennsylvania. That explains it.

  5. You can look in the bedroom. But I’ll warn you now my two 80 pound German Shepards are in there and they can smell a government official a mile away. Oh and I forgot to feed them this morning. Good luck.

    1. No, I wasn’t rubbing bacon on your back. Why are you asking something so silly mr. inspector?

      1. Had to, sir. Sorry about your dogs.

        1. But I followed department protocol so you’ve got that going for you.

  6. Forget it, Jacob. It’s Red Wing.

    1. Nicely done.

  7. What the hell is a “rental license?”

    1. Some cities require a license for the occupant and for the person renting the apartment. It’s freaking absurd. You see it a lot near communities with college campuses. The fees can generate an astonishing amount of revenue when the turnover on apartment buildings is high, like near college campuses…

      1. Fire codes, mandated fire exits? Reasonable

        Minimums square footages and/or closet space and/or bathrooms for what constitutes a “unit” for a certain number of people?
        Reasonable

        Building codes? Inspections after any alterations?
        Reasonable

        Rental LICENSES?
        Now that’s just Absurd.

        What the hell is there to know that isn’t already covered by the other shit?

        1. This does actually seem to be one of those things they came up with just for fees. I usually don’t buy it when people complain like that, but this is a case where it’s probably true.

          I’m looking it up and there doesn’t seem to be any information you need to submit that would be novel and/or relevant to renting out.

          And holy shit it’s $1000 a year to rent out a house. That’s a lot even for New Jersey, and we have high real estate values and rents. Can’t imagine what that’s like in those other places.

          On the plus side, at those prices, the towns are fucking themselves. This will significantly lower the price of homes and subsequent tax revenue.

          1. I’m not going into a building code discussion. I do know that where I worked they raked in a lot in fees.

        2. Fire codes, mandated fire exits
          Minimums square footages and/or closet space and/or bathrooms for what constitutes a “unit” for a certain number of people
          Building codes
          Inspections after any alterations

          Assuming any of this is reasonable, it can be inspected during planning, construction, and when the unit is empty – there is no need for inspection while the unit s leased.

      2. Sounds like one of those things that again make me glad I live in Texas.

        1. I live in Dallas, and our apartment complex is inspected once a year. They pick the apartment units “randomly”.

      3. Trying to read between the lines when this came up in a local community recently, I concluded that most of the support came from locals who were trying to keep the student rentals out of their neighborhoods by driving up the costs and hassle. It will represent a small effect on purpose-built multi-unit housing, but most of the detached, single family houses available for rent are own by non-corporate landlords with only a few properties (i.e. people for whom compliance will be a big issue).

        But it won’t work. All the local property management firms ramped up their advertising once it went through…

        Now that it has passed, of course, the city council will never willing give up the revenue.

  8. I know that it is not libertarian to say, but, about the time they cross my threshold it would seem to be time to kill some government folks.

  9. A judge and a state appeals court ruled that they won’t have standing to mount such a challenge until the city succeeds in obtaining inspection warrants that apply to them.

    In a related ruling, the Court has decided no person who has not already been executed by the state has standing to challenge the death penalty.

    1. A more fitting analogy is people who have not been sentenced to death, can not challenge the a death penalty sentence.

      It think what they are doing is bullshit. Back in the late 1700s a similar action helped trigger a revolution.

  10. they don’t have the right to bust into people currently-being-resided-in homes.

    Jesus, Edwin, they’re just streamlining the process; try to show a little consistency in your thinking, wouldja?

    1. Wow. So restaurant inspectors not being like the gestapo is the same thing as this clearly unnecessary B.S. being OK?

      You’re so stupid it’s beyond words.

      And by the way, thanks for proving my point. You guys only see things in terms of government = bad without any context.

      1. Clearly unnecessary B.S. or not, the inspection authority gives the city the power to do this, and judges everywhere have ruled the same way.

        You’re so stupid it’s beyond words.

        Tough words from someone who is so shocked at the inevitable results of a policy you support.

        This sort of thing happens everywhere regulatory authority is extended, with only occasional rulings against it.

        1. Again, you guys have trouble catching up, when did I ever say I support any of this? All I’ve ever said is it’s not unreasonable – i.e. not outside of police power. This article excepted of course.

          and says who it’s always going to go too far? I disagree. It depends on where and on the culture of the people in the place. And there’s always lawsuits to stop them. The tattoo ban was ruled against in that city in Cali. I would suspect the same thing could very well happen here.
          And even if it does always end up going too far before being checked back, maybe I don’t care. Maybe that’s the lesser of two evils.

          1. —“All I’ve ever said is it’s not unreasonable – i.e. not outside of police power. This article excepted of course.”—

            Well, as we know from the restaurant thread, Edwin thinks that if you are in business, you can afford a lawyer to deal with regulation. And permit fees and processes are not outrageous. So just chalk this up as one of the costs that wealthy landlords have to cover. All landlords are wealthy.

          2. If it’s the lesser of two evils, you have to assume that which is less evil is worth doing, that it provides some benefit. Otherwise, just stop doing that as well. None of these things you’ve said are reasonable (and by that I assume you mean not oppressive) are actually necessary, but they are all costly.

  11. Standing is one area the courts just abuse like crazy. Because they defer to government action rather than to, I dunno, the Constitution or the rights of citizens.

    1. They have standing already. There’s a high likelihood that their rights will be violated in a manner that is unConstitutional. That should be sufficient standing to challenge the practice.

      1. I agree, but I’ve thought that while reading court opinions on more than one occasion.

        1. Yeah, I was speaking more from a frustrated and an I-wish-things-were-that-way perspective than anything else.

  12. On its face, the requirement for landlords to submit their proposed rental property for a health and safety inspection prior to or between occupancy does not itself seem unreasonable. Once a property is rented out, and has an occupant, then the tenant’s privacy rights trump any petty bureaucratic busy-bodiness. Further, by a tenant agreeing to occupy the residence, it fairly well renders moot anyone else’s opinion of suitability, if they are satisfied with the arrangement.

    The fuckers pulling this shit need to be told where to step the hell off. Pronto.

    1. I know what you mean, but I might disagree. There’s no reason to believe that one person renting for one year would significantly degrade the safety and sanitary conditions of the unit to the detriment of the next renter (or hell, the same renter – I’m looking at Minneapolis’ website and it doesn’t matter if the renter changes or not, it’s just a yearly thing). It would take one of those weird hoarders (animal or stuff) to do that. And in trhat case the landlord would DEFINITELY know and do something about it.

      And as I say above, $1000 a year to rent a house? That’s excessive period. There’s no context you can put that in that would make it reasonable to be withing the scope of the state’s police power.

      1. So, you’d be fine with the “inspections” if the license was cheaper?

        1. Not if someone is residing – see my comment further up top

  13. by a tenant agreeing to occupy the residence, it fairly well renders moot anyone else’s opinion of suitability, if they are satisfied with the arrangement.

    Nice save; I was already winding up with the “willing renter” argument by the time I finished the paragraph.

    And I *don’t* think the “suitability” argument is reasonable.

  14. Minimums square footages and/or closet space and/or bathrooms for what constitutes a “unit” for a certain number of people?
    Reasonable

    Dear Edwin,

    “Reasonable tom” not same as “reasonable”

    Ifd you look at an apartment, and the closets aren’t big enough to suit your needs, you just say, “Thanks, but I’ll keep looking.”

    There is no need- none!- to involve some tinpot tyrant from the county.

    And- same with fire escapes; if your fevered imagination conjures up an image of you bubbling and spattering like a pig at a Fourth of July picnic when you’re touring the apartment, just say “Nyet.”

    1. and that’s where nobody ever takes up libertarianism. If a renter is renting a place out, he should be able to fucking REMAIN ALIVE in case there’s a fire. It’s part and parcel of renting a place out. If he rented a place out, and there was no fire exit, he was essentially defrauded, government regulation or not – unless he was explicitly told there was no fire exit.

      1. My due diligence as a potential renter means I should acquaint myself with the building, buildings, entrances, and exits before signing the contract. If I decide that not having a fire escape isn’t a big deal to me and go ahead and rent, it isn’t the landlords fault if I die in a horrible fire.

        1. Bullshit. It’s PART of a rental unit. It’s part of what constitutes an “apartment”. Regulation or no regulation. It’s basic logic as to what a thing is. Like expecting a car’s axle to be able to handle potholes. Or expecting an oven thermometer to handle oven temperatures.
          If a landlord rents out a unit that doesn’t have a fire escape, and neither party mentions or inquires about it, he’s defrauding the renter.

          1. Yeah, but see what I said was that before you enter into the voluntary contract, that might be something you want to know (so you know, you don’t wind up getting defrauded).

            I mean common sense tells me if I go look at an apartment and I don’t see any fire escapes, I should probably ask “What the fuck do I do if there’s a fire while I’m on the 14th floor?”

            And if the landlord is like “Scream” common sense tells me I should tell him to fuck off.

            1. you’d be surprised how few people would do that even if there weren’t fire codes

              1. you’d be surprised how few people would do that even if there weren’t fire codes

                Didn’t Darwin put that into writing a century or two ago, and how nature usually handles those people. But I guess the leftist motto is that even though we can’t beat nature, kudos to us for trying our hardest.

  15. should be “reasonable to me”

    The cat helped me write it.

  16. Next fucke up thing to happen – landlords getting charged with posession of drugs if their renters leave them there after moving out.

    1. Actually on second thought that seems somewhat unlikely to happen with the real property/personal property split. i.e. even if it’s on your property (real property), it isn’t YOUR property (personal property), and hence can’t be “posession”.

      1. then again, I wonder how “posession” is defined under the statutes.

  17. My solutions is to leave greasy dildos sitting out on every available surface.

  18. I saw the tip of this particular insult in the early ’90’s. By fortuity of inheritance, I paid $40K outright for a tiny studio apartment which was part of a condo association. When I got the note from state authorities demanding an “inspection,” I knew it was a court fight waiting to happen. But we all have lives, right?, so I had been staying part time with a lady friend and just arranged never to be there at their “appointed times.” They ultimately gave up on me, and evidently on the whole idea, since the notices stopped coming after a few years. But I was blown away because I had spent much of my professional life studying and challenging search warrants, and now, it seemed, we ALL got a warrant. In real-deal search warrant jurisprudence, you needn’t have a warrant if you already have a right to go in (for example, during hot pursuit, or if you hear or see a murder in progress through a window; essentially circumstances where you forced entry is needed to stop violence.) These “inspection” scams turn this on its head. Now you’d need a special exemption to avoid these ubiquitous, automatic intrusions. This could have been remotely reasonable if demanded by the condo ass’n, or by an adjoining neighbor whose bathtub overhead is leaking down and destroying the ceiling in the unit below (happened to me twice). That’s simply a civil nuisance action. But I checked my paperwork inside out and this was a city-state demand, with all the usual threats. If they came in with a rule strictly limiting their view – for example, they would be required to ignore anything and everything they saw that might violate law, thus restricting their actions to their (alleged) true purposes, that would at least be half-way sensible, but the very demand to come in your house at all is criminal from the get-go. Condos ARE special, in the sense of density – I had a neighbor above my ceiling, below my floor, and a different one against each wall, save the one that faced outside and contained my windows. Conflicts between myself and all my inches-away neighbors are likely enough, but that should all be limited to civil cases (the ordinary cause of action is technically called “nuisance,” but in my case it was small claims against my overhead neighbor for the cost of my new ceiling.) Privacy is fundamental. While disagreeing with similarly intrusive laws regarding your car, things you carry, and let’s not even talk TSA, the home is where the line MUST be drawn. Had the authorities/home-invaders persisted, and the Courts failed me, would I have brought it to a swat-team encounter? Naaa. But such men ought to keep track of my health, because if a doctor reliably diagnoses me with a terminal disease where I only have weeks or days, I just may change my mind. It’s about philosophy and education, of course, not force. A philosophically aware populace would never vote for such a thing in the first place, and if such a law somehow arose, they’d need a swat team for EVERY inspection.

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