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To Get a Warrant Or Not to Get a Warrant? There Is No Question

We’ve all heard the saying that your home is your castle. Zion, Illinois, has added an asterisk to that well-known idea: *unless you’re a renter.

Ordinarily, if the government wants to search a person’s home, it needs to get a warrant. But under a recently enacted city ordinance, Zion residents who rent their homes must open themselves up to intrusive code inspections—no warrant required. To make matters worse, if a renter refuses to consent to an inspection and demands the government inspector return with a warrant, the city punishes the rental property’s owner with fines of $750 per day. One Zion landlord accrued fines totaling an astonishing $114,000.

The city’s motive is obvious: It wants to coerce property owners into strong-arming their tenants into submitting to unconstitutional searches.

This abusive policy outraged Zion resident Josefina Lozano. As the owner of two rental buildings in Zion, and as a lawyer who went to law school to start a second career, she resents the government forcing her to aid and abet the city’s violation of her tenants’ constitutional rights.

Her renters—Della Sims and Robert and Dorice Pierce—feel the same. Having rented from Josefina for well over a decade, they see these apartments as their homes. They understand what the city is doing is wrong and won’t open their homes to inspection without a warrant. They have nothing to hide; they just value their property rights and believe that no one should be punished for simply asserting and defending those rights.

This isn’t the first time IJ has encountered a city trying to skirt the Fourth Amendment by punishing landlords with fines when their tenants ask inspectors for a warrant. We first fought this battle several years ago in Black v. Village of Park Forest, when the village tried to charge a fee whenever tenants demanded that inspectors get a warrant. We won that case and established a vital principle: Tenants do not check their Fourth Amendment rights at the door of their homes simply because they choose to rent.

Yet cities like Zion are still violating this fundamental principle. If Zion officials want to conduct an inspection, they should obtain renters’ consent or get a warrant. They cannot punish a landlord just because her tenants assert their Fourth Amendment right to be free from warrantless wall-to-wall searches of their homes.

Those rights are particularly important to Josefina—who is not just a believer in the American Dream but someone who has lived it. A first-generation immigrant from Mexico who became a citizen and raised two children, both college graduates, she understands the value of American constitutional rights more than many.

That is why Josefina and her tenants teamed up with IJ to fight back. Last fall, we filed a federal lawsuit in Illinois challenging Zion’s unconstitutional rental inspection program. We quickly obtained a court order temporarily halting Zion’s punitive actions against Josefina and her tenants. Now, we will vindicate the Fourth Amendment and ensure that the home remains a castle—for owners and renters alike.

Rob Peccola is an IJ attorney 

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