Landlord and Tenants Sue Illinois City Challenging Unconstitutional Home Inspections

Institute for Justice · September 27, 2019

Zion, Ill.Under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, there is only one option for the government when it wants to search a home without the occupant’s consent: get a warrant. In Zion, Illinois, however, the government operates by a different set of rules. Zion’s rental inspection ordinance gives it license to fine landlords up to $750 a day, or even revoke the right to rent property altogether, unless landlords force tenants to allow the city’s unconstitutional searches. 

Zion landlord Josefina Lozano wants to protect her tenants’ rights. After some of her tenants refused to allow warrantless inspections, the city sent Josefina a threatening letter giving her until September 29, 2019, to comply—or face fines that could reach five or even six figures. Rather than wait for the city to issue ruinous fines, Josefina and three of her tenants—Della Sims, Dorice Pierce and Robert Pierce—are teaming up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a federal lawsuit fighting Zion’s unconstitutional ordinance.

“Just because someone chooses to rent, rather than own their home, it doesn’t mean they give up their constitutional rights,” IJ Attorney Rob Peccola said. “It is plainly unconstitutional for Zion to force renters to open up their homes to government inspectors without a warrant and under threat of extreme penalties.”

Dorice and Robert have called their Zion apartment home since 2000. Because they value their personal privacy, the couple sent a letter to the city objecting to an inspection and demanding a warrant before allowing government inspectors to search their most private spaces. Zion ignored that request, choosing to threaten Josefina, their landlord, with fines.

“This is our home. It’s our right to decide who comes in it, and the government can’t do so without a reason,” Robert said.

In 2015, when the city passed its rental inspection ordinance, the mayor at that time blamed the city’s poor financial health on an “overabundance of non-owner-occupied rental property.” Renters, he asserted, “often do not take care of their property like homeowners do, so this ordinance targets rentals only.” But individuals’ constitutional right to privacy in their home does not depend on government preferences for homeowners over renters. All persons enjoy that right equally.

Now, Zion is threatening Josefina with ruinous liability and her tenants with eviction from their homes simply because they refuse to “voluntarily” waive their Fourth Amendment rights. Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held that, even if the tenant objects to the inspection, such mandatory inspections are allowed, but only if the inspector first obtains an administrative warrant. The administrative warrant requirement for housing inspections has been reaffirmed countless times by courts throughout the country. Despite this mountain of precedent, Zion has decided that obtaining a warrant is inconvenient, so it has adopted a different tactic: coercive penalties for anyone who asserts their Fourth Amendment rights. That is unconstitutional.

“For the government to go inside your home, it needs a warrant. But Zion and cities across the country routinely ignore this fact, assuming that citizens won’t be able to fight back. We look forward to vindicating our clients’ Fourth Amendment rights with this lawsuit,” said IJ Constitutional Law Fellow Adam Griffin. 

The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty and the nation’s leading advocate for property rights. IJ has successfully challenged a rental inspection program in Yuma, Arizona, and is currently challenging the rental inspection regimes of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and Seattle, Washington. IJ has spent more than 25 years fighting for the rights of all Americans to be secure in their homes and businesses and safe from abusive government policies. IJ’s victories have saved homes and businesses, including: the home of an Atlantic City widow; 17 homes and businesses in Lakewood, Ohio; and a boxing gym for inner-city youth in National City, California.