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Can I refuse this inspection of my rental home?
May 1, 2007 2:47 PM   Subscribe

Can a city inspector inspect inside my home without due cause? Is this a violation of the fourth amendment?

So, I received notice that my rental duplex is going to be inspected through this program. I'm a pretty private person and I don't feel like government officials should be able to enter my house without an invitation or a warrant.

Are programs like this just looking for probable cause? Is it crazy that I want to call the ACLU? I'm not quite sure how to deal with this.
posted by kamikazegopher to Law & Government (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you're a renter you don't quite have the same rights. When I lived in the beehive-type apartment complexes, this sort of thing was routine (and performed by an firm contracted by the landlord). The best way to deal with it is to hide anything you don't want seen in the closet and suffer the two minute walkthrough.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:55 PM on May 1, 2007

Look in your lease. It probably has a clause stipulating that the landlord can access the building if required by law for exactly this kind of reason - to test compliance with local building laws.

You could also call the people running the program and ask if there is any way you can legally refuse the inspection. (To preserve privacy, call from somewhere other than home, and don't give them your address.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:08 PM on May 1, 2007

But in reference to your question, "Are programs like this just looking for probable cause?", I'd say not necessarily. I've lived in a few places with programs similar to this, and they were instituted because the landlords in the area were slumlords who wouldn't fix basic problems, and there were illegal immigrants who felt like they couldn't report the problems. Some housing problems can turn into public health threats (eg rat infestations, repair problems that can cause building collapse, non-working toilets), so the city decides it has to have regular inspections.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:12 PM on May 1, 2007

I've lived in a few places with programs similar to this, and they were instituted because the landlords in the area were slumlords who wouldn't fix basic problems, and there were illegal immigrants who felt like they couldn't report the problems.

My boyfriend does contracting work, and this is definitely a part of it, even beyond classic slumlord problems -- they're looking for compliance with standards of habitability, etc. In other words, they're not looking for anything connected with you, per se (though hide any stashes of any illicit or embarrassing pleasures, such as your Britney Spears CDs); they're looking to make sure that your landlord has the place up to code (wiring, plumbing, smoke detectors, etc.), and isn't violating the zoning (e.g., hasn't rented out a garage as a living space or an apartment as commercial space).
posted by scody at 3:24 PM on May 1, 2007

It may set your mind at ease to call the number on the mentioned website to get a rundown of what they're looking for. I imagine they're mostly going to look at the electrical, to make sure that fire alarms work, and to do a cursory check that you're not hoarding tons of newspapers or overcrowding the unit.

These programs are generally done for the public good. I know there have been bad fires (in D.C. for instance) in student housing that has led to the city doing more inspections of rental units.
posted by saffry at 3:28 PM on May 1, 2007

Will the people who are doing these inspections be police officers? It doesn't look that way from the link you provided. In that case, even if they did see something over the course of the inspection, they wouldn't have the authority to arrest you.

Is it possible that someone could see a wayward joint and tip off the police? Yeah, I suppose, but it seems unlikely that a time-pressed building inspector would care. There is a difference between a search and a building inspection. So just hide anything you don't want them to see; a no one needs to rifle through your personal effects to determine if your windows are up to code (or whatever).

Also, it is my understanding that in practice the fourth amendment applies to police and other law enforcment officers executing a search in the context of a criminal investigation - which this would not be. (IANAL, however.)

Unsafe and substandard rental housing is a real problem in most cities; many tenants don't know their rights and some disreputable landlords exploit that. While I obviously can't say for certain that this isn't the kind of operation you imagine it is, it certainly makes sense that the program is what it says it is.

And if I may be presumptuous, you might want to lay off the pot a bit anyway... it's making you paranoid.
posted by AV at 3:31 PM on May 1, 2007

Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523 (1967): Ordinarily a warrant is necessary if the occupant does not consent to a safety (ie fire/health/housing code) inspection, BUT, probable cause to issue the warrant can be shown by establishing that the dwelling to be searched falls into some legislative or administrative standard.

What this means, is, yes, they can search, and to get a warrant they just have to show that they're doing an inspection on all houses with X characteristic (pre-war, wood frame, etc), and they have probable cause to believe that your dwelling falls into that category.

That is the Constitutional standard; your state or local municipality may have other added requirements.

Your next question is probably going to be, what if they see illegal stuff in plain view? Can't they tell the cops? I don't know if this issue has ever been decided by the court. As a practical matter the guys doing the inspections are probably not peace officers, but rather inspectors with some limited enforcement power (kind of like a health inspector).
posted by Brian James at 3:52 PM on May 1, 2007


"Your next question is probably going to be, what if they see illegal stuff in plain view? Can't they tell the cops? I don't know if this issue has ever been decided by the court."

If the inspectors are there legally, anything they see is admissible in court as there would be no grounds for its exclusion. Of course, The Camara Court said that building inspectors DID need a warrant, but that it would be trivially easy to get one... so if they have no warrant when they show up, you can send them away...

As a previous commenter mentioned, you likely consented to this search when you signed your lease. In theory you can revoke that consent at any time. In practice, this would probably violate your lease and irritate all parties involved... and then they'd just come back with a search warrant.

Unless you're running a meth lab or hiding a few dozen illegal immigrants, I doubt you have anything to worry about.
posted by toomuchpete at 4:15 PM on May 1, 2007

Thanks, all, for your answers so far. I don't have any illegal activities to hide, I just find this to be pretty intrusive. I don't like having uninvited people in my home. Also, I'm probably hypersensitive given the slow erosion of our civil rights in the U.S as of late.
posted by kamikazegopher at 4:55 PM on May 1, 2007

No you cant stop them as a renter, and as an owner they have to show a warrent.

As for the guys, if they see anything they suspect as illegal, they can and will report it. They are not cops and are not bound by privacy laws, its the same as if a neighbor saw a pot plant in your living room window.

IMHO, But then, I always assume the worst.
posted by IronWolve at 5:50 PM on May 1, 2007

It's for your own protection. Let it be. Hide your drugs, stolen property, illegal animals, hostages, and other assorted contraband prior to the inspection. If they find anything it is your landlord's headache, not yours. This is a good thing, not a bad thing.
posted by caddis at 7:00 PM on May 1, 2007

Just to clear my internet name: I am not hiding/growing/selling/using drugs. It is the dead hookers in my basement that I am concerned about.
posted by kamikazegopher at 10:06 AM on May 2, 2007

Help with that can be found here.
posted by caddis at 10:54 AM on May 2, 2007

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