Renters head 36% of the nation’s 122.8 million households.19 Although renters are entitled to the same security and privacy in their homes as homeowners, their Fourth Amendment rights are akin to those of pre-revolutionary colonists under George III’s all-encompassing “general warrants.” Cities subject renters to mandatory code searches where inspectors—strangers—enter their home without their permission. When a renter demands that the city come back with a warrant, the official can fill out a warrant application listing no individualized probable cause and receive a rubber stamp “administrative warrant.” That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court blessed these watered-down administrative warrants in Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523 (1967). Once inside, the inspector views everything about the tenant, from medications, holy books, and political tracts, to information about their sex life, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
IJ seeks to restore renters’ Fourth Amendment rights in two ways. First, despite Camara’s lax standards, cities often avoid seeking warrants altogether in favor of punishing landlords. In 1998, IJ successfully challenged Park Forest, Illinois’s Rental Inspection program, which exacted a $60 fee when renters requested that officials get a warrant. Another federal judge in Illinois recently affirmed the standing of IJ’s clients to sue the city of Zion, Illinois, where the city threatened a landlord with ruinous fines when her tenants demanded a search warrant.
Second, IJ is striving to convince state high courts, often supported by constitutions with stronger privacy protections than the Fourth Amendment, to reject Camara and require that officials obtain real warrants based on individualized probable cause before entering people’s homes.
- IJ represents tenants and landlords challenging Pottstown, Pennsylvania’s rental inspection program under the Pennsylvania constitution, which predates the federal constitution and protects privacy to a greater degree.
- Iowa’s constitution also provides more protection than the Fourth Amendment. Threatened with administrative warrants, IJ’s clients sued Orange City, Iowa, to assert their rights.
- Under the Washington constitution, the government must have a warrant before searching someone’s home, whether it is reasonable or not. IJ sued Seattle when it tried to get around the warrant requirement by punishing landlords with fines, and tenants with more burdensome searches. IJ has petitioned the Washington Supreme Court to hear the case.
Young people, racial and ethnic minorities, and those with lower incomes are more likely to rent.20 That doesn’t make them second-class citizens with respect to their right to be secure. IJ’s Project on the Fourth Amendment will work to ensure that state and local governments treat them no differently than homeowners when it comes to their privacy rights.