Minnesota Court of Appeals Upholds Unconstitutional Searches of Renters’ Homes

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · June 13, 2016

St. Paul, Minn.—In a case of immense importance to renters and landlords across the state, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled today that the government can enter renters’ homes without any evidence anything is wrong with the home. Today’s decision allows government officials to barge into the most private confines of renters’ homes—including their bedrooms and bathrooms—even if renters or landlords object.

“Today’s decision undermines the privacy and property rights of all Minnesotans,” said Institute for Justice (IJ) senior attorney Anthony Sanders, who argued the case at the Court of Appeals. “Your home is your castle, irrespective of whether you rent or own it. If our constitutional protections mean anything, it’s that the government cannot enter your home without evidence there’s something wrong.”

The case began when the city of Golden Valley sought to inspect a rental unit in Jason and Jacki Wiebesick’s duplex to check to see if their tenants were, among other things, maintaining a clean kitchen and tidy toilet. In 2015, the city informed the Wiebesicks that they would have to submit to these types of inspections in order to maintain their rental license. The Wiebesicks discussed the inspection with their tenants, and their tenants did not want it.

The city then went to court to ask for an administrative search warrant to inspect their property. Hennepin County Judge Susan Robiner disagreed and denied the city’s request. She found that the Minnesota Constitution requires the city to show some individualized suspicion of a housing code violation for a warrant to issue. The city appealed, and the Institute for Justice stepped in to protect the tenants’ and landlords’ rights under the Minnesota Constitution. The ACLU of Minnesota filed an amicus brief in the case.

“Tenants should enjoy the same level of privacy in their homes as homeowners,” said Jason Wiebesick. “The city shouldn’t be able to force its way into innocent people’s homes.”

IJ will appeal this case to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Golden Valley’s rental ordinance allows city inspectors to enter every part of renters’ homes. Also, nothing in the ordinance prevents city inspectors from sharing information with police. Other Minnesota cities have similar programs allowing city inspectors—sometimes accompanied by police officers—to obtain warrants to inspect rental properties against the wishes of landlords and tenants. The cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bloomington and Woodbury, for example, all mandate inspections, irrespective of whether there is evidence of a housing code violation.

“These types of rental inspection laws are an end-run around constitutional protections on warrants, searches and seizures,” said IJ attorney Meagan Forbes. “We hope that the Minnesota Supreme Court will answer the very important question of whether the Minnesota Constitution gives renters the same constitutional protections homeowners receive in their homes.”

In 2006, IJ filed a lawsuit on behalf of a coalition of landlords and tenants challenging similar inspections in Red Wing, Minnesota. The case was heard by the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2013, but the Court did not answer the question of whether the Minnesota Constitution prohibits the use of administrative warrants to inspect rental homes. This case will give the Minnesota Supreme Court the chance to again answer this important legal question.