MN court: Inspectors free to seek code violations

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled that housing inspectors in a Twin Cities suburb can search rental housing units for code violations even if there’s no suspicion that any exist.

The court overturned a district court judge’s ruling that Golden Valley inspectors could not obtain an administrative search warrant without an “individualized suspicion” of a code violation. Golden Valley has enacted an ordinance requiring that rental housing be inspected every three years.

But landlords Jason and Jacki Wiebesick and tenants Tiffani Simons and Jessie Treseler refused to allow the inspection after the city renewed the Wiebesick’s rental license.

In overturning the lower court, the Minnesota Court of Appeals judges said the ordinance does not violate the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects” against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

It cited a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said an administrative search warrant satisfies constitutional guarantees.

“In establishing this standard, the Court recognized the tension between the privacy interests protected by the Fourth Amendment and the ‘unanimous agreement among those most familiar with this field that the only effective way to seek universal compliance with the minimum standards required by municipal codes is through routine periodic inspections of all structures,’” Judge Jill Flaskamp Halbrooks wrote on behalf of a three-judge panel.

“The need for routine housing inspections is great because the detection of certain dangerous living conditions cannot be accomplished effectively through any other means,” she wrote, rejecting the argument that the ordinance should be struck down because Minnesota’s Constitution provides more protections than the U.S. Constitution.

Unlike drunk driving, which can often be detected through non-intrusive observation, there are no exterior canvassing techniques that will reveal code violations such as faulty wiring or inoperative smoke detectors.

And for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of familiarity with code requirements and fear of retaliation, tenants are not well-situated to report code violations to the city.

There’s a pretty fair chance this case will end up before the Minnesota Supreme Court, which dismissed a challenge to Red Wing’s ordinance in 2013 that allows city officials to enter an apartment without the landlord or tenant’s permission. The 2005 law in Red Wing became the focal point of a national debate over property rights.

In that ruling the court seemed to invite a constitutional challenge by a landlord against whom an administrative warrant had been issued.

This may be that challenge.