J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · December 2, 2021

SEATTLE—Yesterday, the Washington State Supreme Court denied review of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a Seattle law that requires tenants to submit to warrantless inspections of their homes. The lawsuit, which was brought by the Institute for Justice (IJ) on behalf of a group of Seattle renters and landlords, argued that the law was a clear violation of the Washington state constitution’s mandate that “[n]o person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.”

Even with the court’s denial of review, the lawsuit had already resulted in some additional protections for the privacy of renters. After the district court denied Seattle’s motion to dismiss the case, the city instituted some reforms to its rental inspection laws that ended the requirement that all failing inspections were reported to the city. Although the reforms did mitigate the most pernicious aspects of Seattle’s law, the fact remains that Seattle continues to forcibly enter and inspect innocent renters’ homes without so much as a simple warrant.

“Seattle treats renters who wish to protect their privacy from government-mandated inspectors as second-class citizens,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Robert Peccola, who represented the plaintiffs. “For many Seattle residents, owning a home is not an option. For them, this law remains an invasive violation of the constitutional right to privacy. With the court’s denial, the onus is now on state lawmakers to put an end of warrantless rental inspections in every city in this state.”

The case, which was a class action on behalf of Seattle renters and landlords, was filed in 2018. At that time, Seattle randomly chose 10% of rental units for a mandatory inspection. The law offered no option for tenants or landlords to object to the mandatory inspection. For many years, Seattle addressed housing code violations in rental housing using a complaint-based system. But in 2013, Seattle switched to a proactive rental inspection system, the Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance, or RRIO, which took effect in 2015. Following IJ’s lawsuit and Seattle’s failure to convince a Washington trial court to dismiss it, Seattle amended its ordinance in 2019. Now, a property owner may avoid failing inspection reports going back to Seattle, but only if they have 100% of their units inspected. In other words, a landlord must pay an expensive and burdensome price to avoid having a state actor conduct an intrusive warrantless inspection of a tenant’s home.

“This lawsuit brought about change, but more work remains to be done,” said Bill Maurer, Managing Attorney of IJ’s Washington state office. “Renters have privacy rights, too, and landlords who support their tenants’ right to privacy and property should not be punished for supporting them. For centuries, if the government wanted to enter a home without consent, it needed to get a warrant. Seattle has eroded that ancient right. The Washington Legislature must fix this and mandate that all cities respect the privacy rights enshrined in our state constitution.”