Live Free or Die? Hardly.
IJ Challenges N.H. Home Inspection Law
By Bert Gall
Every person’s home is his castle, unless he lives in New Hampshire. Under that state’s home inspection law, local government officials can obtain a warrant to search the home of any person who refuses to allow a government-hired inspector to conduct an interior inspection for the purpose of property-tax assessment. If officials don’t want to take the time to get a warrant, they don’t have to. That’s because the law punishes anyone who refuses to “consent” to a search of his home by eliminating his right to appeal his assessment.
In short, the statute puts Granite State homeowners between a rock and a hard place: no matter what they do, government employees can either force their way into their homes or punish them if they refuse to consent to a search by an inspector.
Because New Hampshire has cast aside the Fourth Amendment rights of its citizens, the Institute for Justice joined with four New Hampshire residents in August to challenge this unconstitutional law. Phil Smith and Tony Stanizzi are homeowners in the town of Hollis, N.H. After they refused to allow searches of their families’ homes by government-hired inspectors, they lost their right to appeal their assessments—even though they wanted to appeal the assessed value of their land, not their homes. Tony and Alicia Lekas, who live in the town of Hudson, face the threat of an unconstitutional search of their home next year. Our clients are outraged that the home inspection law attempts to force them to let strangers invade their privacy by roaming through every room in their homes.
As Phil says, “Government employees in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state shouldn’t be allowed to intrude into my family’s home or penalize me merely for exercising my Fourth Amendment rights.”
Under New Hampshire’s law, it is actually easier for government employees to search the homes of law-abiding citizens than it is to search the homes of suspected criminals. While government employees have to obtain a warrant based on “probable cause” that a law has been broken to search the home of a suspected criminal, the law takes away that protection for law-abiding citizens. The Fourth Amendment forbids such an absurd result.
What’s equally absurd about this result is that government officials do not need to get inside people’s homes to assess home values properly and equitably. Many states reassess home values without conducting interior inspections, and only a handful punish homeowners by terminating their right to appeal if they refuse to submit to a search. IJ’s clients were willing to cooperate with inspectors by answering questions about their homes, discussing publicly available documents about their homes and allowing exterior inspections—techniques regularly used by many other states that do not trample upon the Fourth Amendment rights of their citizens.
IJ has a history of protecting people from government attempts to roll back their Fourth Amendment rights. For example, six years ago in Park Forest, Ill., IJ secured a federal court ruling that that city’s rental inspection scheme—in which the city tried to search people’s homes without their consent—was unconstitutional.
With this case, IJ continues to protect the sanctity of every American’s home from the intrusions of big government.
Bert Gall is an Institute for Justice staff attorney.