It is not often a lawyer gets to argue a legal question that has never been considered before, but IJ’s Litigation Director Dana Berliner did just that in front of the Minnesota Supreme Court on February 5, 2013. After more than six years of legal battles, IJ’s clients—a coalition of landlords and tenants from Red Wing, Minn.—will soon finally know whether their state’s constitution will be interpreted to force the government to show probable cause before entering their property without permission during administrative searches.
You would think this question would be a no-brainer. After all, the Fourth Amendment says the government needs “probable cause” to get a warrant. But, in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court read that language out of the federal Constitution in the context of rental inspections, where cities inspect rental properties to look for housing code violations. The Court’s decision emboldened city governments to adopt rental licensing laws mandating intrusive housing code inspections of tenants’ homes and landlords’ properties, even when the government has absolutely no evidence that anything is wrong. Under these regimes, our most cherished personal spaces and possessions are thrown open to the unwanted eyes of government agents.
This is a huge problem. Many people are understandably very protective about whom they let into their homes. By merely walking into someone’s residence and seeing their possessions you can learn all kinds of things about their private life. As John Monroe, one of our tenant clients, says, “This is my home. It is where I live; it is me.” The last thing he wants is an agent of the city nosing around in his space.
But help may soon be on the way. Under our system of federalism, states can protect individual liberty under their own constitutions when the U.S. Supreme Court fails to do so. And so IJ has asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to rule that the Minnesota Constitution requires probable cause before the government can perform an unwanted inspection. This question—whether a state constitution protects against these unconsented rental inspections—is one that no state supreme court has ruled on before, one way or the other. Thus, a ruling for our clients will reverberate across the country.
The case is a testament to IJ’s tenacity and our clients’ perseverance. The case was filed in November 2006 and since then has been before 15 different judges in four different courts, traveling up and down the elevators of justice until finally reaching where we hoped to be all along.
The Minnesota justices asked IJ and the city’s attorney a slew of questions, many of which indicated they had serious concerns over the scope of the inspections and the U.S. Supreme Court’s deviation from traditional constitutional principles. This gives us and our clients hope that soon we can slam the door shut on overreaching government inspectors.
Anthony Sanders is an IJ Minnesota Chapter attorney.