U.S. District Court Protects Sanctity of Renters’ Home, Strikes Down Housing Inspection Law

John Kramer
John Kramer · February 27, 1998

Washington, D.C.­In a decision with far-reaching implications for housing inspection programs in Chicago and throughout the country, a federal district court judge struck down major portions of the Illinois Village of Park Forest’s housing inspection law that allowed warrantless “safety” searches of single-family rental homes.

“Most people think of their home as a castle, and the court’s decision vindicates this time-honored principle,” said Scott Bullock, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, which represented the tenants in their challenge to the Village’s housing inspection ordinance. He added, “The court declared the Village’s unreasonable and arbitrary inspection law unconstitutional, and thus stopped tenants in single-family homes from being treated like second-class citizens.”

The lawsuit was filed in December 1995 by the Institute on behalf of several Park Forest tenants who sought to protect their rights under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches of property. The decision, by U.S. District Court Judge Joan Gottschall, struck down over half of the Village’s inspection law. She held that the law impermissibly invaded the property and privacy rights of tenants, and that the law unconstitutionally singled out single-family rental homes for intrusive inspections by government officials. She declared:

“Fourth Amendment concerns for privacy and security are profoundly implicated when a government official invades the sanctity of a person’s home. The inspections here are unquestionably invasive. Warrants are served by an inspector and a police officer. Every room in a residence is inspected, including bedrooms and bathrooms.”

The Village’s law, like many housing inspection laws across the country, authorizes government officials to enter homes at “all reasonable times.” Judge Gottschall, however, held that the law was not based on “reasonable legislative and administrative standards,” declaring that “this court can find nothing in the record to indicate why the Village undertook such an intrusive inspection program solely for rented single-family homes and can find nothing that limits in any way the scope of the inspections.”

The judge also held the Village’s $60 fee it charges when an individual demands a search warrant to be an unconstitutional condition on the exercise of Fourth Amendment rights.

Furthermore, the judge declared that the Fourth Amendment requires the Village to obtain the explicit consent of tenants before conducing the inspections, rather than relying on the consent of the landlord. Rebutting the claims of the Village, Judge Gotschall declared: “the right to consent or not consent to a search belongs to the tenant.”

“If the Village wants to resume inspections, it must tailor its practices to protect the property rights of renters and demonstrate that the inspections are necessary to protect public safety,” Bullock said. He concluded, “This is a major victory for private property rights.”