Red Wing Tenants and Landlords Ask Minnesota Supreme Court to End Abusive System of Administrative Warrants

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · February 23, 2010

Red Wing, Minn.—You might think the government cannot search your home without a warrant and reason to believe you have done something wrong.  But many cities in Minnesota have local laws 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.  Today, in a case that will have statewide impact, a coalition of 11 tenants and landlords from Red Wing, along with the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter (IJ-MN), asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to take their case immediately and end government-forced inspections of homes without individual “probable cause” (that is, reason to believe the rental home has a problem).

“The Minnesota Constitution is clear that government officers cannot come into your home or property without your consent or evidence something is wrong inside,” said IJ-MN Staff Attorney Jason Adkins.  “Although the U.S. Supreme Court carved out an exception to the federal constitution’s warrant requirement, which allowed housing inspections based on less than individualized probable cause, the Minnesota Supreme Court should reject a rule that essentially gives cities like Red Wing an extra set of keys to inspect everyone’s home whenever they believe they have a good reason to enter.  Today, it’s rental housing; tomorrow, it’s everyone’s home.”

The City of Red Wing has been seeking so-called “administrative warrants.”  These are search warrants that don’t require individual probable cause.  Instead, the local government merely asserts that it has a citywide inspection program and there are some housing problems somewhere in the city.  The tenant-landlord coalition has already defeated three of these unfounded warrants sought by the city to enter their homes and properties.  The Goodhue County District Court has ruled that Red Wing’s program runs afoul of even the minimal standards for these inspections required by the U.S. Constitution.

The court instructed Red Wing that if it still wants to enter people’s homes and properties without their permission, it must amend its rental inspection ordinance yet again to fix the constitutional defects, and file another warrant application with the court.  But landlord Robert McCaughtry, who filed suit, has had enough:  “What will it take for the city to end this foolish program?  I’m not against the City having housing standards; but forcing its way into peoples’ homes without any evidence of a problem or code violation is outrageous.”  Unfortunately, the court refused to allow the tenants and landlords to seek an injunction against more warrant applications—an issue they are now appealing and hope the state Supreme Court will address immediately.

It is likely Red Wing will try again for another warrant soon, leaving the tenants and landlords in a state of constitutional limbo and potentially subject to another illegal warrant application.  And dozens of other cities around Minnesota—including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Rochester—have programs just like Red Wing’s requiring mandatory inspections of every rental home.

“People need to be able to challenge the legality of searches of their homes before there is someone knocking at their door,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dana Berliner.  “Whether this kind of search is even allowed under the Minnesota Constitution is an important and timely issue that the Minnesota Supreme Court has never decided.  More and more cities are passing these laws, and Minnesotans need protection now from these invasive and unconstitutional searches.”

According to Adkins, “The district court concluded that, although it did not have the authority to hold that rental housing inspections without individualized probable cause violate the Minnesota Constitution, it strongly suggested that the Minnesota Supreme Court should take up the issue.  We hope they will take this case now, rather than forcing the tenants and landlords to endure yet another warrant application.”

The Minnesota Supreme Court will likely consider the landlords’ and tenants’ petition for accelerated review very soon.  If it is granted, the case will be sent immediately to the state’s high court.  Otherwise, the case will follow the normal path through the court of appeals, and potentially come before the supreme court down the road.  Either way, the case will likely be heard by one of the courts late this spring.

“The Minnesota Supreme Court has regularly provided greater protection for individual liberty under the Minnesota Constitution,” said Adkins.  “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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