Arlington, Va.—In a case of immense significance to anyone in Minnesota who rents a home or apartment, today the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the government may invade the most private confines of renters’ homes without any evidence that there is anything wrong. The court stated that the Minnesota Constitution does not prevent the city of Red Wing from intruding upon the residences of tenants in the city—including their bedrooms and bathrooms—even if both the renters and their landlords object to the inspection and even if the city has no reason to believe the property is unsafe. Under this ruling a Minnesotan’s home is only his castle until the government decides otherwise.
This is the second time the Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled against the renters and landlords who filed suit, and this will now be the second time the litigants will appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court in hopes of finding relief. The last time they did so, tenants and landlords won, reversing the appeals court ruling. Represented from the start by the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, the tenants and landlords have, in fact, litigated this case for more than five years seeking to prevent city of Red Wing officials from searching their homes without some probable cause. Nine landlords and two tenants from Red Wing, Minn., have sued to overturn the city’s rental inspection law. Many cities across Minnesota—including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Rochester—have local laws like Red Wing’s that allow government officials to conduct housing inspections of all rental units in the city, even if the tenant and landlord refuse to consent to the search and even if the government has no reason to believe there is a problem with the rental unit or even with the building. The unusual alliance of landlords and tenants sued the city to prevent government inspectors from violating their rights.
“Red Wing’s unreasonable and unconstitutional inspection program allows government inspectors to poke around in practically every nook and cranny in your home—even closets and your bathroom,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dana Berliner. “In this ruling, the Court of Appeals simply decided to follow federal precedent and dismissed the idea that the Minnesota Constitution offered greater protection. Now, only the Minnesota Supreme Court can decide this important question of Minnesota constitutional law. And, that’s exactly where this case is going next.”
The city of Red Wing has been seeking so-called “administrative warrants.” These are search warrants that do not require individual probable cause that would justify the government entering the property. Instead, the local government merely asserts that it has a citywide inspection program and there are some housing problems somewhere in the city. The tenant-landlord coalition has already defeated three of these unconstitutional warrants sought by the city to enter their homes and properties. But the tenants and landlords also want the courts to find the inspection program unconstitutional, instead of having to go to court to challenge an endless series of search warrants. Both the Goodhue County District Court and now the Court of Appeals, however, have refused to find that Red Wing’s law violates the Minnesota Constitution.
The Court of Appeals today held that Minnesota should follow the case decisions under the U.S. Constitution, which allow “administrative” warrants to search homes. The question before the Minnesota Supreme Court will be whether the Minnesota Constitution offers more protection of the rights of people who rent their homes. The Minnesota Supreme Court has frequently found the Minnesota Constitution protects rights more than the U.S. Constitution.
Landlord Robert McCaughtry, a plaintiff in the case, has had enough: “What will it take for the city to end this foolish program? Allowing the city to force its way into peoples’ homes without any evidence of a problem or code violation is outrageous.”
“The tenants and landlords in this case demonstrated Red Wing’s program violates the right to be secure in one’s home and to be free from unreasonable searches,” said IJ Minnesota Chapter Attorney Anthony Sanders. “Whether this kind of search is even allowed under the Minnesota Constitution is an important and timely issue that the Minnesota Supreme Court has never decided. More and more cities are passing these laws, and Minnesotans need protection now from these invasive and unconstitutional searches. Our clients are determined to continue their defense of all Minnesotans’ liberty and privacy. It is on to the supreme court that we go.”