SEATTLE, Wa.—Today, a group of Seattle tenants and landlords partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a class action lawsuit challenging the city’s use of invasive, warrantless searches to inspect rental units. The lawsuit, which was filed in King County Superior Court, argues that the city’s program is a clear violation of the Washington state constitution’s mandate that “no person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.” Yet, in Seattle, that is exactly what happens when the city forces landlords and tenants to submit to a warrantless search.
“By subjecting tenants to random, government-mandated inspections that would not occur if that same person owned their home, Seattle is treating renters like second-class citizens,” said William Maurer, the managing attorney of the Institute for Justice’s Washington state office. “Your home is your castle, regardless of whether you rent or own it. It is plainly unconstitutional for Seattle to force renters to open up their homes to government inspectors when nothing is wrong inside.”
Maurer continued: “The lawsuit seeks to do one simple, but important, thing—allow tenants to exercise their constitutional rights and say ‘no’ when an inspector shows up without a warrant.”
Under Seattle’s program, each year the city randomly chooses roughly 10% of the rental units in Seattle for a mandatory inspection. Owners of buildings with more than one rental unit may choose to have a sample of at least 20 percent of the units in a building inspected (up to 50 total units), with the city choosing which units to inspect. Anyone renting an apartment or home chosen by the city must allow inspectors into their home to inspect it for housing code violations, even if they do not consent and the city does not have a warrant. The law offers no options for tenants or their landlords to object to the search.
But many tenants understandably object to a stranger wandering through their home. For some, the law means spending an unnecessary hour or two picking-up around their house. But for many others, a home contains deeply private information about that person, like their medical, political, religious, and personal activities. A search of someone’s home reveals what they read, eat, and own, what their hobbies and interests are, what medications they take, how and with whom they sleep, where their children sleep, and who is important in their lives.
That’s true for renters Matthew Bentley, Wesley Williams, and Joseph Briere, who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Earlier this year, the city informed their landlord that their home needed to be inspected. Bentley, Williams, and Briere, along with their three other roommates, have nothing to hide. But because their home is in great shape and they all value their privacy, they informed the city that they did not want their home inspected. The city responded by threatening fines upwards of $500 per day if their landlords did not somehow coerce the housemates to allow the unconstitutional inspection.
“For me, it’s not only a matter of privacy but also of security,” said Keena Bean. “I’m a young woman living alone in the city, and I take my personal safety very seriously. Deciding whether or not to let a stranger into my home is something that should be left 100 percent up to me. Just because I rent doesn’t mean the government can force its way into my bedroom and through all of my personal belongings.”
For many years, Seattle addressed housing code violations in rental housing using a complaint-based system. But in 2013, Seattle, like an increasing number of municipalities, switched to a proactive rental inspection system, the Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance, or RRIO, which took effect in 2015.
“It should be up to tenants to decide whether they want a stranger entering their home” said IJ attorney Rob Peccola. “The fact that someone rents, rather than owns their home should not give the government the right to disrupt their life, invade their privacy and search their homes even when there is no evidence that anything is wrong.”
Peccola continued: “The law makes landlords do the city’s dirty work when a tenant says no to an inspection. The city has never attempted to get a warrant—that would mean forcibly entering over the objections of people the law was meant to help—so instead it fines landlords upwards of $500 per day until they can coerce their tenants to allow the inspection. The city is essentially fining landlords for refusing to violate their tenants’ privacy.”
This lawsuit does not seek to stop the city from inspecting rental units where the tenants agree to the inspection or keep the city from addressing problem properties. Rather, the suit seeks to stop the city from entering the private homes of Seattle’s renters unless the city gets the tenant’s consent or obtains a warrant based on evidence of a specific problem.
The Institute for Justice, which has an office in Seattle, is a nationwide, public interest law firm that stands up for citizens’ constitutional rights and liberties. It has filed three previous lawsuit challenging rental inspection laws in Redwing, Minn., Golden Valley, Minn., and Pottstown, Penn.