Minnesota Supreme Court Punts on Key Privacy/Property Rights Case

The city of Red Wing, Minnesota, has a rental property inspection program—one that’s unfortunately not unusual—whereby landlords and tenants must routinely open their doors to government agents. These searches take place even if both the landlord and tenant believe it not to be necessary. The owner of the property even has to pay a fee for the unwanted search to receive a rental license! The city only sometimes makes initial requests for consent as a mere courtesy, because it proceeds with an administrative warrant in the event of a refusal—without a showing of probable cause to believe there’s a housing code violation or other problem. The inspection ordinance doesn’t even attempt to prevent the disclosure of information revealed during the search; the whole neighborhood may find out the contents of your medicine cabinet or choice of DVDs.

A group of landlords and tenants challenged the inspection program, arguing that several alternatives are available to meet what legitimate interests local governments have. Last September, Cato joined the Reason Foundation, Libertarian Law Council, Minnesota Free Market Institute at the Center of the American Experiment, and Electronic Frontier Foundation and filed an amicus brief urging the Minnesota Supreme Court to confirm that no Minnesotan should be subjected to an intrusive invasion of privacy when there has been no showing of some cognizable public health or safety issue within the home subject to inspection.

Last Friday, the Minnesota Supreme Court handed down its decision in McCaughtry v. Red Wing. Unfortunately, the Court decided to dodge the question of whether the government is required to obtain a warrant to inspect a residence without individualized probable cause under the U.S. or Minnesota Constitution.

The court’s reasoning is maddening: Red Wing’s ordinance allows judges to imagine individualized standards even when the city doesn’t present any individualized evidence when applying for a warrant. Moreover, the Court determined that the challenge was facial and thus the law would need to be unconstitutional in all of its potential applications in order to be struck down. Because some warrants could be constitutional, the Court ruled against the homeowners, and had absolutely nothing to say about the propriety of warrants issued without individualized probable cause. It did this even though the city has never sought such a warrant and has never said it has any interest in asking for one. The court was clear that its holding had absolutely nothing to say about whether a warrant issued without individualized probable cause would be unconstitutional.

So after nearly seven years of litigation, the plaintiffs are left where they started: these warrants may be unconstitutional, but the courts won’t say so. As a result, Minnesota residents remain subject to unconstitutional, over-broad, and intrusive searches of their homes, belongings, and lives.

There was a small silver lining in all this, a concurrence by Justice Paul Anderson, who said that he agreed with the court’s (unanimous) opinion but that the Minnesota Constitution does require individualized probable cause to obtain a warrant to enter someone’s residence.  Although no other justices joined his opinion, this is the first statement by a state supreme court judge ever that narrows administrative warrants in the context of home inspections since the U.S. Supreme Court’s unhelpful and unclear Camara decision in 1967 started the trend toward such programs. (Telllingly, this concurrence was Justice Anderson’s last official act; he retired on Friday.) And that will be something to use on this issue going forward, whether in state courts or in federal courts, to eventually ask the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider Camara.