A Lawrence ordinance allowing the city to inspect rental homes will be allowed to continue, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
U.S. District Court Judge Kathryn H. Vratil handed the city a significant legal victory by dismissing all claims made by a group of tenants and landlords who said the inspection process violated their constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment.
The judge also dismissed complaints that the registration program the city requires for some rental homes violated landlords' rights to due process.
Lawrence attorney Gerald Cooley, who represented the city in the case, said he was pleased with the ruling.
"This is an issue that we did a lot of research on and gave a lot of thought to before any of the ordinances were ever adopted," Cooley said. "We're pleased that we have properly read the case law from across the country, and created an ordinance that complies with it."
Attempts to reach any of the defendants or their attorney were unsuccessful Thursday evening. The defendants - Mary Anton Jones, Aaron Kirby, Monte Turner and Ronald Lawrenz - have the option of appealing the ruling to the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
The city ordinance only requires inspections of rental properties that are in areas zoned for single-family use.
The city argued the inspections were reasonable because it always asked tenants for permission before inspecting the homes. When permission was not granted, the city would only enter the house if a judge issued an administrative warrant to search the home.
"We don't just wander into people's houses," Cooley said.
The judge in the case sided with the city's arguments that the searches were reasonable because the city gave notice to the occupants of the home, and received an administrative warrant when permission was not granted.
The judge also noted that an administrative warrant does not demand the high level of probable cause that is required for a criminal search warrant to be issued. Instead, an administrative warrant only requires that the "administrative standards for conducting an inspection are satisfied."
Cooley said the lower standard is proper because city employees are not seeking evidence of criminal activity when they enter a home for a rental inspection.
"We're not there to look for criminal activity or to pick up contraband," Cooley said.
The inspections allow the city to ensure that housing codes are being followed. It also allows the inspectors to determine that no more than three unrelated individuals are living in a single-family home, as mandated by city ordinances.
The cap on the number of unrelated people who could live in a single-family rental home had been part of the lawsuit, but a judge dismissed those arguments in 2004.