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Landlords and Tenants Challenging Illinois City’s Unconstitutional Home Inspections Score Major Win

Zion's ordinance threatens ruinous fines unless landlords force warrantless searches on unwilling tenants

Zion, Ill.—Yesterday evening, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois issued an opinion denying a motion from Zion, Illinois, to dismiss a lawsuit challenging its rental inspection ordinance. The inspection program allows the city to enter residents’ homes without cause or their consent—subjecting landlords to $750 daily fines for every day a tenant refuses an inspection. In September 2019, a Zion landlord and two of her tenants filed a lawsuit challenging the program. They are represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national nonprofit public interest law firm that advocates for property rights.

Robert and Dorice Pierce, the tenant plaintiffs challenging Zion’s ordinance, have called their Zion apartment home since 2000. They sent a letter to the city objecting to an inspection and demanded a warrant. Zion ignored that request, choosing not to respect their personal privacy and to threaten their landlord, Josefina Lozano, with ruinous fines.

In Zion’s attempt to dismiss the lawsuit, it argued that tenants challenging the ordinance lack standing to sue, even though they had been threatened with warrantless searches, because the inspections have not been conducted yet. The city argued that because of this, the plaintiffs suffered no injury. This is a dangerous argument because it would force anyone challenging a violation of their rights to first suffer the violation before they can sue to stop it.

Judge John F. Kness shot down that argument, declaring that, “at any point, the City could choose to bypass the administrative warrant and move directly to levy compounding fees on Plaintiffs. With regard to standing, the administrative warrant option is a chimera that fails to eliminate Plaintiffs’ ‘substantial risk’ of injury.”

Landlord plaintiff Josefina Lozano celebrated the news, saying, “I was very pleased that the judge immediately went to the heart of the matter that Zion chooses to punish landlords with this ordinance.”

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.

“Your home is your castle, and if the government wants to look through it, it must obtain a warrant,” said IJ Attorney Rob Peccola. “We are thrilled that the court saw through Zion’s attempt to get rid of this lawsuit.”

Now the lawsuit will move on to discovery, and the tenants will seek a judgment from the court declaring Zion’s inspection program unconstitutional.

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