Lawsuit: Mandatory City Inspections are Invasion of Privacy

Updated: 02/06/2013 7:58 AM KSTP.com By: Steve Tellier

It's a case that pits public safety against personal privacy. Attorneys presented their arguments in front of the Minnesota Supreme Court on Tuesday morning, and the outcome could impact thousands of renters.

"I think that they shouldn't be able to just walk in whenever they please," said Breanna Potter, who rents an apartment.

"It's a little frightening to be honest," said Mara LeBlanc, another renter.

It's usually tenant versus landlord. But in this rental dispute, they're on the same side, taking on a city, and squaring off in the state's highest court.

"The government can come in whether or not it has any evidence that there's actually something wrong with that apartment," said Anthony Sanders, an attorney with The Institute For Justice.

A group of tenants and landlords in Red Wing sued the city, claiming mandatory city inspections of rental units are an invasion of privacy and violate Minnesota's constitution. A national libertarian group, The Institute for Justice, took up their cause.

"We should all have the freedom to choose who comes into our homes and who does not. It's an age-old maxim that your home is your castle," Sanders said.

"That's completely misleading," said John Baker, an attorney arguing Red Wing's case.

Baker said the inspections are a matter of public health and safety, to ensure that a building is up to code before renters move in.

"The need for rental housing code relates a lot to the need to protect people who often aren't in the best position to protect themselves," Baker said.

He claims that if the landlords and tenants win, ensuring safety at rentals would be nearly impossible.

"We would probably need to know what's wrong inside the unit without any chance to get inside the unit," Baker said.

But that standard sounds spot on to some.

"If they have reason to go in, then I guess that's OK. But if it's based on hearsay, then I'm not sure," LeBlanc said.

The Minnesota Supreme Court is expected to decide whether those inspections are constitutional in the next few months.

Under current law in many Minnesota cities, code inspectors can't just come into your home unannounced. They have to give advance notice, show up during normal business hours, and they're largely limited to looking into code enforcement issues.