The Right To Be Left Alone

 Your home is supposed to be your castle, regardless of whether you own it or rent it. You are free to leave dishes in the sink or clothes on the floor—unless you live in Golden Valley, Minnesota. This Minneapolis suburb has asked a state appellate court for a warrant to inspect the rental property of IJ clients Jason and Jacki Wiebesick to check that their tenants are literally keeping the house clean. If they are not, the Wiebesicks face fines. If you think this sounds like a violation of the Fourth Amendment, then you are correct. Now IJ and the Wiebesicks are fighting for more than just the right to leave dirty dishes in the sink—we are fighting for the fundamental right to be secure in your home and free from illegal government searches.

Jason and Jacki own and live in a duplex in Golden Valley. For decades they have rented out the unit next to their home. Jason and Jacki are extremely protective of their tenants’ privacy and when the city told them they needed to allow the rental unit to be inspected in order to keep their rental license, the Wiebesicks hesitated to let city officials in. The city demanded to inspect the unit without providing any evidence the rental unit was out of compliance with the city’s housing code. The Wiebesicks and their tenants have nothing to hide, but as a group they decided they did not want Golden Valley officials trampling through their bedroom and bathroom.

Instead of backing off, officials went to court—without telling Jason and Jacki or their tenants. The city tried to get a so-called administrative warrant rather than a criminal warrant. With an administrative warrant, the city did not need to prove that anything was wrong with the unit. This was not the first time the city had been sneaky. In 2012, city officials were successful in getting an administrative warrant against the Wiebesicks when former tenants also objected to an inspection. But this time, the judge refused to grant the city a warrant.

Golden Valley is not the only city in Minnesota to seek evidence-free administrative warrants to search rental homes. Cities including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bloomington and Woodbury have been successful in getting administrative warrants for mandatory inspections. And they get away with this because the U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled that the same standard of proof needed for police does not apply to housing inspectors, since the government is not looking for evidence of a crime.

Fortunately, in 2013, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided that the Minnesota Constitution may provide greater protections than those offered by the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. Longtime readers may remember a similar IJ case in Red Wing, where the Court stated that although this relaxed standard for housing inspections is the rule under the federal Constitution, that may not be true for the Minnesota Constitution. The Court left open the possibility of resolving this issue in the future, and that could very well happen in this new rental inspections case.

Golden Valley has appealed the denial of its warrant application to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and IJ is representing the property owners before the appellate court. The case will be argued this spring and may head to the state Supreme Court soon after. The Court will then resolve a crucial question: Is your home still your castle? As always, IJ will fight to get the answer right.

Anthony Sanders is an IJ senior attorney.

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