Victory! The Government Knocks, and an Iowa Court Slams the Door
When Orange City, Iowa, tried to force code inspectors into Bryan Singer and Erika Nordyke’s home, against their will and without probable cause, the couple fought back. Now, after two years in the litigation trenches, they’ve won! An Iowa court struck down Orange City’s mandatory rental inspection program as violating the state constitution’s prohibition against unreasonable searches.
Iowa, like many states, protects property and privacy rights more expansively through its constitution than does the federal Constitution with the Fourth Amendment. A coalition of landlords and renters, including Bryan and Erika, teamed up with IJ to enforce those rights. Like many of us, they are deeply private and do not allow strangers into their homes. In February 2021, however, that privacy was threatened when Orange City enacted an inspection program authorizing it to forcefully search rented homes—without any evidence of a code violation.
Before our victory, the city could obtain entry with so-called administrative warrants, issued without individualized probable cause. But a state court held that Orange City cannot get a warrant to search renters’ homes without “some plausible basis for believing that a violation is likely to be found.”
This is important given how invasive the inspectors were. In discovery, IJ learned that the city’s inspections were unlimited in scope. Inspectors could search any room—including bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms, and basements—dig through closets, and open any interior doors. Inspectors informed the city attorney about suspected law breaking, and nothing in the ordinance prevented law enforcement from accompanying inspectors to searches—or using the inspection as a pretext for a later arrest.
Shocked by the program’s sweeping permissiveness, the court held that renters must be notified of the city’s application for a warrant and given the opportunity to advocate for restrictions on the search. But our fight isn’t over. The city appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, where an IJ victory would have even broader impact.
Meanwhile, IJ is fighting against a similarly abusive inspection program in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, to enforce protections for private property guaranteed by that state’s constitution. Both of these cases seek to ensure that government officials cannot deprive citizens of their privacy and property rights simply because they rent—rather than own—their homes.
John Wrench is an IJ attorney.
Also in this issue
Subscribe to get Liberty & Law magazine direct to your mailbox!
Sign up to receive IJ's bimonthly magazine, Liberty & Law, along with breaking news updates about the Institute for Justice's fight to protect the rights of all Americans.