Rental licensing rules adopted by cities across Minnesota will be tested Wednesday when the state’s highest court hears arguments on whether landlords and tenants can block routine city housing inspections.
The case, stemming from a Golden Valley dispute, tests the balance between privacy and a government’s responsibility to regulate health and safety. It has attracted the attention of a wide range of interest groups, from the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., to the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and the League of Minnesota Cities.
“This is about the protection of the privacy of your home,” said attorney Anthony Sanders, who is representing the plaintiffs on behalf of the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based law firm. “If the government wants to get into your home, do they need evidence that there’s something wrong?”
Golden Valley inspects rental properties every three years. But in 2015, landlords Jason and Jackie Wiebesick and their tenants refused to allow the city to inspect their duplex. Their attorneys say they objected to the inspection on principle, as there was nothing wrong with the property.
The city sought an administrative warrant to enter the property. A district judge denied the request, but that decision was later reversed by the Court of Appeals. The Wiebesicks and their tenant, Jessie Treseler, appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
At issue is whether a city must show probable cause of a housing violation to get an administrative warrant to enter a property. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that it wasn’t necessary, but Sanders argues that the Minnesota Constitution imposes a higher standard.
Golden Valley’s attorneys say a ruling requiring that additional probable cause would make Minnesota a national outlier and undermine cities’ ability to enforce property maintenance rules.
“No other state has done what the appellants in this case are asking Minnesota to do,” said Ashleigh Leitch, an attorney for the city.
Invasion of privacy?
The case has also generated debate about the nature of regular housing inspections.
Supporters of the plaintiffs argue in court filings that such inspections reveal “the most private trappings” of people’s lives, such as political affiliations, reading habits, religious practices and hobbies.
“The only theoretical avenue of escape is for owners and renters to pack up all their belongings and hide them elsewhere until the government agents have gone away — until the next inspection,” reads a brief filed by the Center of the American Experiment, the Cato Institute and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
But the city and its supporters say such inspections stick to a tight script focused on building standards.
“They’re not digging through people’s personal belongings,” said Jessica Mikkelson, an attorney with tenant advocacy group Homeline, which filed a brief supporting the city in the case. “They’re checking out plumbing, and wiring, and outlets and smoke detectors. And then everybody goes home.”
She said the routine inspections protect renters, who may not know they can call the city about code violations or fear retaliation from a landlord for reporting problems.
“We’ve seen … landlords writing in their leases, ‘If you call the city inspector or allow a city inspector in, I’ll fine you or you’ll be evicted,’ ” Mikkelson said.
Sanders noted that anti-retaliation provisions in state law protect tenants in those situations.
Tom Deegan, former chief of housing inspections in Minneapolis, said he occasionally needed to seek an administrative warrant to enter a property.
“From a public safety standpoint, most people would agree that periodic inspections are not only necessary, they’re the only adequate way to protect tenants who don’t have a voice against substandard or unruly landlords,” Deegan said.
Such periodic inspections are common. Golden Valley surveyed 53 cities that license rental property, and all but two of them said they required periodic inspections. About half reporting being denied entry by an owner or tenant, and 34 percent said they had used a warrant to gain access. Only three cities reported ever being denied for a warrant.