Washington, D.C.-On Monday, April 12, 1999, the property rights of tenants in Park Forest, Illinois (a southwest-Chicago suburb) were finally vindicated after a three-and-one-half year battle, as the Village of Park Forest Board of Trustees approved a settlement agreement that officially ended its mandatory inspection program for single-family rental homes.
“Park Forest tenants will no longer be treated like second-class citizens,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, which represented the tenants in their challenge to the Village’s housing inspection program. “The government will now have to abide by constitutional guarantees if its agents wish to enter a renter’s home, just like they would any other home.”
The Village’s former inspection program permitted warrantless “safety” inspections of tenants’ homes without their consent. The lawsuit was filed in December 1995 by the Institute on behalf of Park Forest tenants who sought to protect their rights under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches of property. In February 1998, U.S. District Court Judge Joan B. Gottschall struck down most of the Village’s inspection law, ruling that the policy was not based on “reasonable legislative or administrative standards” as required by the Fourth Amendment.
The judge left some issues unresolved, and, as the case was progressing, the Village decided to end its mandatory inspection program by amending its housing code. However, the amendments, passed in September 1998, did not protect the right of tenants because they still permitted inspections of single-family homes at “all reasonable times.” The tenants demanded changes in the inspection policy, thus leading to the settlement reached Monday.
“The settlement agreement protects private property rights and prohibits unauthorized, warrantless inspections of property,” said Bullock. “Finally, Park Forest tenants will know that strangers can no longer enter their homes without their explicit consent or a valid warrant,” he added
Under the terms of the settlement and new legislation, a Village official may only enter single-family homes under one of following circumstances: a change of occupancy, upon the request or complaint of a tenant or owner, or where there is probable cause that a housing code violation exists.
According to the settlement, the Village must also dismiss lawsuits filed against two of the tenants and their landlords in state court. Moreover, because it lost the lawsuit, the Village must pay the attorney’s fees of the plaintiffs in the amount of $58,000.
“This case should remind municipalities around Chicago and across the nation that they will be held accountable if they have inspection programs that violate constitutional guarantees,” stated William Mellor, the Institute’s president and general counsel.