City’s right to inspect rental units upheld

The city has the right to inspect rental units against the wishes of tenants or property owners, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has issued a ruling upholding a previous federal court decision that sided with the city in a lawsuit regarding the city’s rental inspection program. The ruling upheld the city’s right to seek administrative search warrants to enter apartments after either a tenant or landlord had denied the city permission.

“We have not been seeking administrative warrants pending the outcome of this case,” said Toni Wheeler, the city’s director of legal services. “But we certainly feel like we now have the authority to proceed.”

Wheeler, though, said the city’s experience in needing to obtain a warrant to conduct a rental inspection – which includes inspectors going through the interior of a home to look for building code violations and other similar infractions – was rare.

A three-judge panel wrote that it found no “genuine issue” against the city in the case. The city was sued by tenants Mary Anton Jones and Monte Turner – who had their rental units inspected against their will in 2002 – and landlord Ronald Lawrenz.

At issue is the city’s rental registration program for single-family homes that are used as rental properties. The city’s ordinance prohibits more than three unrelated adults from living in a single-family rental unit. It also requires that city officials inspect the home once every three years for life, health and safety issues.

The plaintiffs had argued that the inspections amounted to a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights to be free of unreasonable searches.

When reached Friday, Turner said he was disappointed, but not surprised, by the decision. He said he believed the city never was interested in inspecting the property for health and safety issues, but rather wanted to see if more than three unrelated people were living in the home. There weren’t, and no violations were found in his apartment.

“We have never done anything to anybody, but they still wanted to look through my home,” Turner said. “That is really pretty scary stuff. It seemed like since I was a renter, they didn’t have to respect my Fourth Amendment rights. It is like I’m a different class of citizen because I’m a renter.”

Unlike a regular search warrant, an administrative warrant does not require the city to show probable cause that a law has been broken. Instead, in this case, the Municipal Court judge only has to be shown that the property falls under the rental ordinance, and thus is eligible to be inspected.

The administrative warrant, though, does limit what the city can look for to matters only related to the rental code.

“We’re not searching through people’s drawers or looking through closets or anything like that,” Wheeler said.

But if an illegal item is clearly seen during the inspection, that finding can be used to go back to court and obtain a criminal search warrant, said Scott Miller, an attorney for the city who specializes in police matters.