Red Wing, Minn.—A state court ruled this week that the city of Red Wing, Minn., may not force tenants and landlords to let city inspectors search their rental homes without protecting their privacy.
Minnesota’s First Judicial District Court ruled on Monday, May 19, 2008, that the city of Red Wing’s mandatory inspection regime lacked reasonable protections against misusing the information obtained and photographs taken during searches by city inspectors. The Court stated the city’s ordinance has “no apparent restrictions to deal with legitimate modern privacy concerns.”
In a 10-page opinion in City of Red Wing v. Terry Amyx, District Court Judge Timothy L. Blakely denied the city of Red Wing’s application for warrants to search 47 homes after their owners and residents refused to consent to the search. The city didn’t claim there were problems with the homes, but rather that the inspections fell under the city’s mandatory rental inspection ordinance, which authorizes inspectors to search anywhere, including inside bedroom closets, kitchen drawers, kitchen cabinets and bathroom vanities, according to testimony by the city’s Assistant Building Inspector Gene Durand.
The city classifies the information and the photographs it takes during rental home inspections as public information. Because the city already has the technological infrastructure in place, the most intimate details of residents’ lives may potentially be “available for the world to see on the Internet,” according to Judge Blakely’s opinion.
Dana Berliner, senior attorney from the Institute for Justice, who argued the case against the city, said, “Red Wing doesn’t seem to understand that some people don’t like the idea of strangers looking in every nook and cranny of their homes, taking photographs, and then making that information open to the public. To make matters even worse, the city has no reasonable limits on its intrusion into personal privacy or later use of the information.”
“The city seeks to make tenants’ lives an open book for the world to see,” said landlord Robert McCaughtry, who has fought against the city’s inspection regime since its inception in 2005. “Tenants and landlords in Red Wing can breathe a big sigh of relief because the Court has denied the city’s latest attempt to get access into their homes.”
On February 25, 2005, the city enacted a mandatory inspection program of all rental properties. If a landlord refuses to give inspectors access to all parts of the buildings, including homes whose residents object to the search as well as locked storage, the city can withhold the landlord’s permanent licenses to operate. Once granted, licenses are valid for three years after which the landlord and tenants must submit to additional inspections.
“This is the second time that the District Court has ruled against the city of Red Wing’s overly intrusive and unconstitutional inspection regime,” said Lee McGrath, executive director of the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter (IJ-MN), referring also to the Court’s decision on August 31, 2007, in which the Court ruled the city did not have the power to undertake zone-based inspection. “It’s time for the city to abandon this flawed regime and leave its residents alone.”
Since November 2006, IJ-MN has represented tenants and landlords in litigation against the city of Red Wing in both state and federal courts. This week’s decision is an important step in IJ-MN’s comprehensive litigation to obtain a court declaration that the city’s inspection regime violates both the U.S. and Minnesota constitutions.
“This is only the latest victory for our clients who have stood up time and again to city officials’ attempts to bully them into submitting to inspections,” said McGrath. “We will not stop until a court declares this regime unconstitutional or the city removes these unjust inspection powers from its laws.”
This litigation is part of the Institute for Justice’s campaign to restore property rights, economic liberty and free speech under the Minnesota State and U.S. Constitutions.
Opened in 2005, IJ-MN is a nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest law firm that advances free speech, property rights, educational choice and economic liberty. The Institute for Justice advances a rule of law under which individuals can control their destinies as free and responsible members of civil society. Through strategic litigation, training, communication and outreach, the Institute for Justice secures greater protection for individual liberty and illustrates and extends the benefits of freedom to those whose full enjoyment is barred by the government. The Institute for Justice is headquartered in Arlington, Va.