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Seattle Tenants Stand Up to Warrantless Government Searches

Keena Bean wants to have final say over who enters her home. She cherishes her privacy and security and would never want someone in her kitchen, bathroom, or bedroom without her permission—let alone someone she doesn’t know and has never met. After all, your home is your castle, and 800 years of jurisprudence says that the government needs a warrant supported by probable cause to pry open your door.

There is just one problem: Keena is a renter. And in Seattle, renters are treated like second-class citizens when it comes to their property rights and their privacy. Under Seattle’s rental inspection law—and the state’s enabling legislation—tenants have no right to object to warrantless inspections of their homes.

Tenants have good reason to oppose the city’s mandatory inspections: They are wall-to-wall searches that examine private living and sleeping spaces where every imaginable aspect of a person’s private life may be on display. If tenants do voice an objection, the city says their landlord must coerce them into opening the door to inspectors—or face fines of up to $500 per day.

Luckily for renters in Seattle, Keena knows how to stand up to bullies. With IJ’s help, she is challenging the city as the lead plaintiff in a state court class action lawsuit against abusive rental inspection laws in Seattle and Washington state.

IJ has challenged rental inspection laws before, but never on behalf of the entire class of tenants and landlords whose rights are violated. This pioneering lawsuit represents a diverse coalition—Keena’s fellow plaintiffs include renters who work late-night shifts, a University of Washington student, and landlords who do not want to be conscripted into being the means by which the government gains entry to a tenant’s private home. Our clients are also sending a message to their state and local governments that enough is enough when it comes to privacy invasions.

When government knocks at the door, renters too should have the right to say “come back with a warrant.”

We are bringing the case under the Washington Constitution, which provides greater and independent protections against search and seizure than the federal Constitution. Whereas Fourth Amendment case law asks courts to evaluate whether searches are “reasonable,” the Washington Constitution takes a step back to first ask whether a search has the “authority of law.” For decades, Seattle has tried to side-step this constitutional provision. Its latest effort is to delegate searches to so-called private inspectors. But those private inspectors must report their findings back to the government, essentially making them deputized government agents—with no constitutional oversight.

At its heart, this lawsuit seeks to reinforce the most basic constitutional principle: When government knocks at the door, renters too should have the right to say “come back with a warrant.”

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