Rental-Inspection Spat Heats Up in Minnesota

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) – Landlords pushed the Minnesota Supreme Court in a lively hearing Wednesday to make tenant consent a prerequisite for city authorities to conduct safety inspections.

The dispute before the packed courtroom stems from an administrative search warrant that the city of Golden Valley obtained in 2015 to inspect Jason and Jacki Wiebesick’s rental unit.

Jacki in an interview called the last inspection in 2012 a “very scary” experience. Facing armed police officers at their door, Jacki said she and her husband were made to feel like “criminals in our own home.”

The couple appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court after an appellate panel ruled this past June authorities need not suspect a code violation to inspect rental units.

Associate Justice David Stras energetically grilled both sides throughout the hearing, repeatedly citing Article I, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution. The state equivalent to the Fourth Amendment, this statute says: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated; and no warrant shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the person or things to be seized.”

Stras emphasized that the state used a semicolon between the reasonableness clause and the warrant clause, whereas the Fourth Amendment has a comma.

Ashleigh Leitch, an attorney for Golden Valley with the Minneapolis firm Best & Flanagan, called the semicolon immaterial. “There’s no common law in Minnesota to interpret it differently,” she said.

Anthony Sanders, an attorney for the landlords with Minneapolis-based Institute for Justice, meanwhile said Stras had the right idea.

“His argument, which I agree with, is that this means the two clauses are dual requirements for a legal warrant, and not that the warrant clause is subsumed within the reasonableness requirement, like the U.S. Supreme Court has said,” Sanders said of the judge.

Sanders in his argument cited the 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision Chapman v. United States.

Under federal law, he said, “the tenant is the one with the right to let [whomever] into their home.”

In Chapman, police entered a tenant’s home without a warrant but with the consent of the landlord, based on his report that there was an odor of whiskey mash on the premises.

“The argument is about a fundamental question of constitutional law: does the government need evidence that there is something wrong with your home before it can enter your home without your permission,” Sanders said in an interview after the hearing.

Leitch, the Golden Valley attorney, meanwhile cited the 1967 precedent Camara v. Mun. Ct. of City & Cty. of San Francisco.

The U.S. Supreme Court found in that case that local governments have a right to conduct safety inspections on rentals, and Leitch said Golden Valley’s warrant was “reasonable” under those parameters.

To date, no state supreme court has granted such relief.

Leitch told the justices Wednesday: “There’s a great amount of common-law precedent that says warrants are still subject to reasonableness.”

Sanders appeared content after the hearing with how it went.

“As always, we don’t know how the court will rule, but we are optimistic that the court will continue Minnesota’s tradition of protecting individual privacy and the sanctity of the home,” he said.

Jason Wiebesick explained what the court battle means to him. “It’s important to protect the privacy of people,” the landlord said. “We respect our tenants’ privacy. And why should they have less privacy than a homeowner? So, if they don’t want the inspection then the city should honor that.”

The couple says the case has generated significant interest. “A lot of people are on our side,” Jason Wiebesick said. “A lot of tenants don’t want the inspections and a lot of people think they can’t do anything about it.”

Leitch declined to comment on the hearing.

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