Intrusive Inspectors

Renters' privacy


In Red Wing, Minnesota, "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," notes the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm. That's because a 2006 ordinance lets housing inspectors roam people's apartments to make sure they're up to code. In December the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed to hear a case in which the institute is challenging the ordinance as a violation of the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches.

The city requires the inspections 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 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.

The institute is asking the state Supreme Court to overturn those rulings. The Fourth Amendment questions raised by the case have nationwide implications, the group 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."