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IJ Defends Iowa Renters’ Fourth Amendment Rights

Imagine two identical homes on any street in the United States. The only difference is that House A is not a rental property, and House B is. A government inspector walks up to House A, knocks on the door, and demands entry to conduct a routine inspection for code violations. The owner of House A declines, so the inspector moves on to the next home. At House B, the inspector similarly demands entry and the person living there similarly declines. Undeterred, the inspector goes to court and obtains an “administrative warrant,” returns to House B, and enters over the objections of the person living there—all without any evidence that there is a code violation or any other issue with the property. The inspector then searches every nook and cranny of the person’s home, opening closets, seeing religious and political information, and revealing what’s underneath beds. 

In Orange City, Iowa, that nightmare scenario is real life. The city’s rental inspection ordinance requires property owners to obtain a permit to lease their property. Before it will issue those permits, however, the city demands that an inspector enter each renter’s home and conduct invasive searches. And if a renter refuses to let the inspector into their most private spaces—as most homeowners would certainly do—the inspector can obtain an administrative warrant by simply showing that someone rents their home. 

A coalition of Orange City tenants and their landlords are challenging the city’s abusive inspection ordinance. One of those tenants, Amanda Wink, rents a single-family home from landlords Bev and Bert Van Dam. Amanda, who shares the home with her fiancé, children, and two dogs, moved back to her hometown of Orange City for more privacy. Because she is pregnant and her fiancé is often away from home as a truck driver, she is firmly opposed to having strangers in her home. But under Orange City’s inspection ordinance, an inspector can get an administrative warrant to forcefully enter and search Amanda’s home even though there is nothing wrong there.

Under the Fourth Amendment, the government cannot normally enter your home without a warrant supported by probable cause. But in the 1967 case Camara v. Municipal Court, the U.S. Supreme Court invented administrative warrants, which allow the government to enter renters’ homes using a watered-down version of probable cause. The Iowa Supreme Court, however, has repeatedly held that the Iowa Constitution is more protective than the Fourth Amendment when it comes to searching Iowans’ homes.

This isn’t the first time IJ has challenged unconstitutional inspection ordinances or made use of the property rights and privacy provisions in state constitutions to protect our clients. In Pottstown, Pennsylvania, we are fighting similar abuse under the Pennsylvania Constitution alongside a coalition of tenants and landlords.

The sanctity of someone’s home does not depend on whether they own or rent. If Orange City wants to enter and search a tenant’s home without their consent or evidence of a code violation, it should have to comply with the same requirement for entering a property owner’s home: Get a warrant supported by probable cause.

John Wrench is an IJ attorney.

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