Minnesota Supreme Court Rules for Property Owners/Renters In Red Wing Challenge

John Kramer
John Kramer · December 28, 2011

Red Wing, Minn.—Today the Minnesota Supreme Court handed down an important victory for Red Wing property owners and renters and for citizens across the state of Minnesota. The court allowed a property rights case to go forward that had been tied up by procedural hurdles for more than five years. The case challenges Red Wing’s rental inspection program, under which the city can enter and inspect people’s homes without any evidence that a code violation has taken place. The decision, which seriously examined the facts of the case and the practical impact of the law on plaintiffs’ rights, is a model of judicial engagement.

Nine landlords and two tenants from Red Wing, Minn.—who are represented by the public interest law firm the Institute for Justice—object to Red Wing’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 sued the city to prevent government inspectors from violating their rights.

“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 sought to test the constitutionality of this law before it is used to illegally enter their homes. Now, thanks to the Minnesota Supreme Court, they will get an answer to that question. The courthouse door remains open for our clients.”

As the Minnesota Supreme Court pointed out, “The City has actually begun enforcing the rental inspection ordinance against appellants.” Therefore, there is a real dispute that affects plaintiffs’ rights, and the courts can go forward to address whether the law is unconstitutional.

Until today’s ruling, the city had announced its plan to continue to try to enter the plaintiffs’ homes without their consent and force the plaintiffs to engage in piecemeal litigation to protect themselves. With the ruling, the plaintiffs can settle the constitutionality of the law once and for all.

Landlord Robert McCaughtry, a plaintiff in the case, has had enough of the city’s inspection program. He said, “I’m not against the city having housing standards, but it’s wrong for the city to force its way into peoples’ homes without any evidence of a problem or code violation. I’m grateful that we’ll finally get our opportunity to show that this program is unconstitutional.”

“Increasingly local governments use ‘administrative warrant’ programs to skirt the protections of the Fourth Amendment and force their way into people’s homes,” said IJ Minnesota Chapter Attorney Anthony Sanders. “The Fourth Amendment, and the similar provision in the Minnesota Constitution, was intended to protect people’s property and privacy rights, and its standards—requiring probable cause of an actual violation of the law—are entirely reasonable and not something the government should be allowed to ignore.”

The court remanded the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals to decide the issue the plaintiffs have been fighting for all along: whether the Minnesota Constitution allows inspections without probable cause.

“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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