Minnesota Supreme Court Hears Case to Decide If Landlords and Tenants May Challenge Law Authorizing Rental Home Searches Without Probable Cause

John Kramer
John Kramer · May 2, 2011

Red Wing, Minn.—A case argued Tuesday, May 3, 2011, before the Minnesota Supreme Court may ensure that you not only get your day in court, but you get that day in court before the government violates your rights. The case will also set an important precedent that could be noted in other jurisdictions nationwide (including California, Illinois and New Jersey among many other states) where rental inspection laws are set up to violate the constitutional rights of both landlords and tenants.

Nine landlords and two tenants from Red Wing, Minn., object to the city’s rental inspection law. Many cities across Minnesota—including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Rochester—have local laws like Red Wing’s that allow government officials to conduct housing inspections of all rented homes in the city, even if the tenant refuses to consent to the search and even if the government has no reason to believe there is a problem with the rental home or even with the building. The unusual alliance of landlords and tenants has sued the city to prevent government inspectors from violating their rights.

But before they can get Red Wing’s law struck down as unconstitutional, the Minnesota Supreme Court must first rule that the landlords and tenants have the right to have their case heard before the government violates their rights. That is the central issue in the case before the Court in tomorrow’s argument. Minnesota’s Declaratory Judgments Act is supposed to allow people to challenge laws as soon as there is a controversy and before their rights are violated. Red Wing wants to make sure that you can challenge a law only after the government has violated your rights and all the damage has been done. Amazingly, despite three attempted search warrants and almost five years of litigation, the city maintains there is no “controversy” between the city and the tenants and landlords.

“Red Wing’s unreasonable and unconstitutional inspection program allows government inspectors to poke around in practically every nook and cranny in your home—even closets and your bathroom,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dana Berliner. “Our clients are seeking a legal decision striking down this unconstitutional law before it is used to illegally enter their homes, but so far the courts have ruled that our clients must wait until an inspector is knocking on their door with an administrative search warrant before they can challenge the law.”

Berliner warned, “If the Court rules against the plaintiffs in this case, the laws in all of those cities with similar inspection laws will be insulated from judicial review. Tenants and landlords throughout Minnesota will be unable to bring lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of their cities’ laws, and they too will be forced to fight endless warrant applications to defend themselves from unconstitutional searches.”

The city of Red Wing has been seeking so-called “administrative warrants.” These are search warrants that don’t require individual probable cause. Instead, the local government merely asserts that it has a citywide inspection program and there are some housing problems somewhere in the city. The tenant-landlord coalition has already defeated three of these unconstitutional warrants sought by the city to enter their homes and properties. The Goodhue County District Court has ruled that Red Wing’s program runs afoul of even the minimal standards for these inspections required by the U.S. Constitution.

The Goodhue county court instructed Red Wing that if it still wants to enter people’s homes and properties without their permission, it must amend its rental inspection ordinance yet again to fix the constitutional defects, and file another warrant application with the court. But landlord Robert McCaughtry, who filed suit, has had enough: “What will it take for the city to end this foolish program? I’m not against the city having housing standards; but forcing its way into peoples’ homes without any evidence of a problem or code violation is outrageous.”

“The tenants and landlords in this case want the courts to hear their case so they can show that Red Wing’s program violates the right to be secure in one’s home and to be free from unreasonable searches,” said IJ Minnesota Chapter Attorney Anthony Sanders. “Whether this kind of search is even allowed under the Minnesota Constitution is an important and timely issue that the Minnesota Supreme Court has never decided. More and more cities are passing these laws, and Minnesotans need protection now from these invasive and unconstitutional searches.”

“The Minnesota Supreme Court has regularly interpreted the Minnesota Constitution to provide greater protection for individual liberty than is provided by the U.S. Constitution,” said Berliner. “We believe this is an excellent opportunity to ensure all Minnesotans are free from unreasonable searches of their homes and properties.”

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