Red Wing, Minn.—Tenants and landlords trying to protect their property rights by keeping the government out of their homes and properties will have trouble getting into the courthouse to challenge unconstitutional rental housing inspection programs, at least if the Minnesota Court of Appeals has the final say in a controversial lawsuit that has been raging for four years.
In a curt, unpublished eight-page opinion, the court of appeals concluded that courts may not hear plaintiff landlords’ and tenants’ constitutional challenges to the city of Red Wing’s rental-housing-inspection ordinance, even though they have been spending years successfully fighting off the city’s attempt to get into their homes and properties via illegal administrative warrants.
It stated that plaintiffs’ injuries in repeatedly fighting the warrants were not sufficient to give them “standing” to raise their claims against the entire program, and that “no significant interest of justice” was present to overlook the absence of standing to hear their claims.
“Today, the court of appeals decided to put the burden on citizens to protect themselves from illegal government activity, rather than have government justify itself when it enacts laws that threaten peoples’ rights—in this case the right to be free from unreasonable searches of your home,” said Institute for Justice Staff Attorney Jason Adkins. “The people of Minnesota should be outraged that their courts have attempted to bar their doors to ordinary Minnesotans who are standing up against this abuse of government power.”
The court’s decision was unpublished, meaning it is not binding on parties in other cases. In other words, the issue of when citizens can challenge unconstitutional rental inspection programs is unsettled and still to be decided by Minnesota’s appellate courts.
Adkins said, “Our clients hope that the uncertainty is resolved quickly by the Minnesota Supreme Court. They plan to ask the high court to review the case and conclude they have standing to bring their claims.”
In 2005, the city of Red Wing enacted a rental housing inspection ordinance that requires tenants and landlords to submit to mandatory and invasive inspections of their homes and properties, even if the renter refused an inspection. The inspection program is so invasive and unconstitutional that the Institute for Justice, representing local tenants and landlords, has successfully defeated three attempts by the city to force its way in using so-called administrative warrants—that is, warrants not based on individualized probable cause to believe a crime or code violation exists inside. Even still, lower courts in Minnesota have concluded, contradicting state and federal law, that citizens cannot bring constitutional challenges to these laws until at least a warrant is granted to search.
“There is something incredibly unjust about requiring citizens to fight off a potentially endless series of attempts by the city to get into their homes and properties, and not allow them any opportunity to challenge the underlying program, even if it is blatantly unconstitutional,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dana Berliner.
Landlord-plaintiff Robert McCaughtry echoed this sentiment. “We’ve sacrificed years of time and resources ensuring Red Wing plays by the rules, something it has still failed to do. Now, the court tells us we have to continue letting the city play trial-and-error with its program, and will not tell us if we have any prospect of challenging these laws at all before an inspector is literally poking his way around our homes.”
Adkins continued, “The court sidestepped completely the central dispute between plaintiffs and the city of Red Wing, namely, whether citizens could challenge in court an inspection ordinance that the city was actively enforcing against them. It refused to state when, in fact, the tenants and landlords in this case, or others around Minnesota challenging similar laws, do have standing to file lawsuits against these programs.”
“This is America,” said tenant-plaintiff John Monroe. “Courts are the place in which citizens vindicate their constitutional rights. We will continue to fight to ensure that the courthouse doors remain open for others who stand up against unreasonable searches and invasions of privacy by government officials.”