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Minnesota Supreme Court Ruling Advances Property Owners’ and Renters’ Challenge to Unconstitutional Inspection Scheme

By Dana Barliner

On December 28, 2011, the Minnesota Supreme Court handed down an important victory for Red Wing property owners and renters, and for citizens across the state of Minnesota. The court allowed a property rights case to go forward that had been tied up by procedural wrangling for more than five years. The case challenges Red Wing’s rental inspection program, under which the city can enter and inspect people’s homes without any evidence that a code violation has taken place. The decision, which seriously examined the facts of the case and the practical impact of the law on plaintiffs’ rights, is a model of judicial engagement.

Nine landlords and two tenants from Red Wing, Minn.—who are represented by IJ—object to Red Wing’s rental inspection law. Many cities across Minnesota—including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Rochester—have ordinances like Red Wing’s that allow government officials to conduct housing inspections of all rented homes in the city, even if the tenant refuses to consent to the search and even if the government has no reason to believe there is a problem with the rental home or even with the building.

Red Wing’s unconstitutional inspection program allows government inspectors to poke around in practically every nook and cranny of rented homes—even closets and bathrooms. Over the past four years, Red Wing had tried three times to get what are called “administrative” warrants to force entry into these homes after the tenants and landlords refused to consent to the searches. Unlike a typical search warrant, an “administrative” warrant does not require individual probable cause—in other words, the government does not need any evidence that the law has been violated. It simply says there is a general reason to search. In the case of rental inspection programs, cities simply say that they have an inspection program and that they need to conduct searches in order to make sure everyone is complying with all housing codes. If the administrative warrant is granted, the government is then free to search the homes of renters against their wishes.

Even though Red Wing had been trying aggressively to get these warrants to search our clients’ homes and properties, and even though Red Wing had stated unequivocally that it would continue to seek entry to the homes, both the trial and appeals courts had said that the tenants and landlords did not have standing to challenge the rental inspection law. It looked like our clients were going to have to wait until after an unconstitutional search in order to challenge it. Now, thanks to the Minnesota Supreme Court, the courthouse door is open and our clients will find out if the law is constitutional before it is used against them.

As the Minnesota Supreme Court pointed out, “The City has actually begun enforcing the rental inspection ordinance against appellants.” Therefore, there is a real dispute over our clients’ rights, and the courts can proceed to address whether the law is unconstitutional.

Landlord Robert McCaughtry, one of our clients, has had enough of the city’s inspection program. He said, “It is wrong for the city to force its way into people’s homes without any evidence of a problem or code violation. I’m grateful that we’ll finally get our opportunity to show that this program is unconstitutional.”

The Minnesota Supreme Court sent the case back to the Minnesota Court of Appeals to consider whether the Minnesota Constitution forbids administrative search warrants, particularly administrative search warrants for people’s homes. We argue, to the contrary that the Minnesota Constitution requires actual probable cause to believe that someone is violating the law before the government may conduct a search against someone’s will. If we are successful, the decision will protect all Minnesotans and set important precedent throughout the country.

Dana Berliner is IJ’s litigation director.

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