Arlington, Va.—You might think the government cannot search your home without a warrant and reason to believe you have done something wrong. But the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled on June 11, 2012, that the government may invade the most private confines of renters’ homes without any evidence that there is anything wrong with the buildings in which they live. 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.
Today, in a case that will have statewide impact, a coalition of 11 tenants and landlords from Red Wing, along with the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter (IJ-MN), asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to take their case and end government-forced inspections of homes without a reason to believe the rental home has a problem.
“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 Litigation Director Dana Berliner.
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.
This is the second time the case has reached the Minnesota Supreme Court. Last year, the Court ruled that tenants and landlords could bring their challenge to the constitutionality of Red Wing’s law. The trial court had denied three separate administrative warrants but said that tenants and landlords could not attack the law itself, and the appellate court had affirmed. After reversing, the Minnesota Supreme Court sent the case back to the Court of Appeals to decide the constitutionality of Red Wing’s ordinance under the Minnesota Constitution. On June 11, 2012, the Court of Appeals upheld the ordinance, saying that Minnesota should follow federal law on the constitutionality of home inspection programs and that such programs are generally legal under federal law. Berliner said, “The Minnesota Supreme Court, however, has regularly provided greater protection for individual liberty under the Minnesota Constitution than exists under the U.S. Constitution. We believe this is an excellent opportunity for the Minnesota Supreme Court to ensure all Minnesotans are free from unreasonable searches of their homes and properties.”
Landlord Robert McCaughtry, one of the landlords in the case, has had enough: “I’m not against the City having housing standards; but forcing its way into peoples’ homes without any evidence of a problem or code violation is outrageous.”
The majority of large cities in Minnesota—including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Rochester—have programs just like Red Wing’s, requiring mandatory inspections of every rental home. And many small cities, like Red Wing, have them as well.
“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. These laws affect thousands of Minnesotans, and the Minnesota Supreme Court should agree to hear this important case.”