Minnesota Supreme Court Upholds Unconstitutional Searches of Renters’ Homes

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · July 19, 2017

St. Paul, Minn.—In a blow to the constitutional rights of Minnesotan renters, the state Supreme Court ruled today that cities do not need to provide evidence of a suspected housing code violation in order to obtain an administrative search warrant to inspect renters’ homes without their permission. Today’s decision denies Minnesota’s renters—and the landlords who want to support them— protection from unconstitutional searches of their homes.

The court also ruled that cities now need to give notice to tenants before trying to get warrants—something that cities were not required to do before—and that tenants have the right to come to court to challenge the scope of the warrant to protect the privacy of their homes.

“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 before the Minnesota Supreme Court. “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.”

The case began when the city of Golden Valley tried to inspect the rental property of Jason and Jacki Wiebsick to check that their tenants were, among other things, maintaining a clean kitchen and tidy toilet—despite having no evidence that anything was wrong. The Wiebesicks discussed the inspection with their tenants, who did not want a needless invasion of their privacy. Together, they told the government to come back with a warrant.

Golden Valley officials went to court to ask for an administrative search warrant to force their way into the property. At first they did not even give notice to the tenants or landlords. They argued that an administrative warrant differed from a traditional criminal search warrant, in that it did not require any evidence of anything legally wrong with the home. Hennepin County Judge Susan Robiner, acting of her own volition, disagreed and denied the city’s request. She found that the Minnesota Constitution requires the city to show individualized suspicion of a housing code violation in order to get a warrant. The Court of Appeals then reversed Judge Robiner’s decision and found that the government can enter renters’ homes without any evidence that anything is wrong inside.

In today’s decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals and found that the Minnesota Constitution does not require individualized suspicion of a housing code violation before the government can get a warrant to inspect a rental home. The court followed a fifty-year old case from the U.S. Supreme Court which interpreted the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Minnesota court concluded that there was “no principled basis for interpreting Article I, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution to require greater protection of tenants than the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution under these circumstances.” But, the court did temper this ruling with procedural protections for tenants that the U.S. Supreme Court has not mandated before. These protections make Minnesota’s tenant protections against administrative warrants stronger than those under any other state constitution, despite the overall loss.

“Tenants should enjoy the same level of privacy in their homes as homeowners,” said Jason Wiebesick, a defendant in the case. “They just want to be left alone. The city shouldn’t be able to force its way into innocent people’s homes just because they think they can.”

While the majority concluded that individualized probable cause is not necessary to obtain a warrant when a tenant objects, two justices disagreed. Justice G. Barry Anderson, joined in part by Justice David Stras, wrote an impassioned and scholarly dissent, dissecting the majority’s historical analysis of both the Fourth Amendment and the Minnesota Constitution. Writing for himself he stated “the City’s interest does not outweigh the significant privacy intrusion of the search, particularly when the City has not shown that alternative means are inadequate to achieve the City’s interest.” He also noted, in describing the proposed warrant, that “it is difficult to conceive of a more invasive search, and it is a search authorized without the traditional protections afforded by the requirement of probable cause.”

Golden Valley’s rental ordinance allows city inspectors to enter every part of renters’ homes to inspect for things like cleanliness. 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 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. “If our constitutional protections mean anything, it’s that the government cannot enter your home without evidence there is something wrong.”