Minnesota’s highest court is considering a case that pits privacy rights against routine government rental inspections. Last week, state Supreme Court justices heard arguments about whether a city must have reason to believe a housing violation has occurred to obtain a warrant to enter a rental property.
Though the right to privacy is an important principle, housing evaluations to protect public safety should take priority. Cities and other local units of government are best positioned to understand their housing stock and determine the type and timetable for housing inspections.
The case in question involves a dispute between the city of Golden Valley and landlords and tenants who refused to allow the city to inspect their duplex. The suburb’s policy is to inspect rental properties every three years. But attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that they turned inspectors away on principle because there was nothing wrong with the property.
As a result, the city sought an administrative warrant to enter the building. That request was denied by a district judge in a decision later overturned by the Court of Appeals. So the landlord and tenant appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court.
In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that probable cause wasn’t necessary to get a housing inspection warrant. But the plaintiff’s attorneys and their supporters in the Golden Valley case say that the Minnesota Constitution places a higher standard on how and when government may enter a rental property. In court filings, they argued that the inspections reveal “the most private trappings” of people’s lives, such as political affiliations, religious practices and hobbies.
The city’s attorneys rightly counter that regular property checks help protect tenants and owners from potential safety risks. Further, they say that a ruling requiring that additional probable cause would make Minnesota a national outlier while undercutting cities that try to enforce property maintenance rules.
Strong code enforcement has helped many neighborhoods clean up blighted properties and get rid of lawbreaking owners. Regular property evaluations can benefit neighborhoods aesthetically. But more importantly, inside checks of electrical, plumbing, heating and structural problems can reduce the risk of injuries and lost lives.
Code enforcement and respecting tenants’ rights need not be at odds. Even in the rare cases where an administrative warrant is sought, cities give notice about the inspection. Responsible owners and renters with nothing to hide (especially those who believe there is “nothing wrong” with their properties) shouldn’t object to checks that prove their units are in good shape.
There are good reasons why most cities require rental property owners to register with government, meet health and safety standards and, yes, submit to periodic inspections. It shouldn’t be left to property owners to decide which rental housing rules they will follow.