Minnesota Landlords and Tenants Go to Court to Fight Unconstitutional Search of Homes

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · January 19, 2016

Minnesotans have a new reason to remember to empty their dishwashers and keep their bathrooms clean. That’s because the city of Golden Valley is asking the Minnesota Court of Appeals to grant it a warrant to inspect the rental property of Jason and Jacki Wiebesick to check that their tenants are, among other things, maintaining a clean kitchen and a tidy toilet. But the Wiebesicks are fighting back. Today, they partnered with the Institute for Justice to fight for more than just the right to leave dirty dishes in the sink; they are fighting for the much more fundamental right of their tenants to be secure in their home and free from illegal government searches.

“Your home is your castle—irrespective of whether you rent it or own it,” said Anthony Sanders, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice’s Minnesota office. “What we do in our home is our business, not the government’s. The mere fact that someone rents a home, rather than owns it, should not give the government the right to disrupt their life, invade their privacy and search every nook and cranny of their home—all without providing a shred of evidence that anything is wrong. It is a fundamental violation of the Minnesota Constitution’s protection against illegal searches.”

Jason and Jacki Wiebesick own a duplex in Golden Valley. For decades they have rented out the unit adjacent to their home. In the spring of 2015, the city of Golden Valley informed the Wiebesicks that in order to maintain their rental license, they would have to submit to inspection of their rental unit by the city’s inspector. The Wiebesicks discussed the request with their tenants and decided as a group to oppose the city’s request.

Importantly, there was nothing wrong with the unit; the Wiebesicks and their tenants had nothing to hide. Rather, they opposed the city’s request on the principle of the matter. The city demanded to inspect the rental unit without providing any evidence that it was out of compliance with the city’s housing code. To the Wiebesicks and their tenants, that seemed wrong.

Without telling the Wiebesicks or their tenants, the city took the matter to court; it sought an administrative search warrant from Hennepin County Judge Susan Robiner. The city argued that an administrative warrant, unlike a warrant for a criminal investigation, did not require providing any evidence that anything was wrong with the home.

Judge Robiner disagreed and denied the city’s request. Citing a previous case litigated by the Institute for Justice, Judge Robiner wrote that without some individualized suspicion of a housing code violation, the court could not order a warrant. She wrote:

Both the United States Constitution and the Minnesota Constitution provide that persons shall be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and impose a warrant requirement supported by probable cause… [T]he privacy interest in one’s home is well-recognized as of greatest constitutional significance.

The city appealed the decision, which is where the case now stands. Today, the Institute for Justice has stepped in to protect the Wiebesicks’ and their tenants’ right to privacy under the Minnesota Constitution and is filing a response to the city’s appeal on behalf of the Wiebesicks, with their tenants joining in the argument.

“Tenants should enjoy the same level of privacy in their homes as homeowners,” said Jason Wiebesick. “We’ve done nothing wrong and we have nothing to hide. The city of Golden Valley shouldn’t be allowed to force its way into innocent people’s homes.”

Golden Valley is not alone in allowing city inspectors—sometimes joined 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 all mandate inspections, irrespective of whether there is evidence of a housing code violation.

“Renters are not second-class citizens,” said IJ Attorney Meagan Forbes. “Their homes are just as sacred, and the Minnesota Constitution protects them just as much as owner-occupied properties. Golden Valley is doing what countless cities do: forcing their way into people’s homes without any suspicion they’ve done anything wrong. This has to stop.”

Golden Valley’s rental ordinance allows city inspectors to enter every part of tenants’ homes and to look for things like the cleanliness of the their kitchens and bathrooms. Even worse, if inspectors sees something they think is illegal, nothing stops them from handing it over to the police.

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 Court of Appeals the chance to answer this important legal question and may make its way to the Minnesota Supreme Court this spring. A decision in this case could change the way cities across the state inspect rental properties.