Reason Foundation

Reason Foundation

Reason Foundation Supreme Court Amicus Brief: Nelson v. City of Rochester

Rental-home inspection programs in the City of Rochester constitute one of the most egregious intrusions into the privacy and sanctity of homes of law-abiding citizens

December 22, 2012

This case is of central concern to amici because it implicates the safeguards the Fourth Amendment provides for the protection of privacy rights against invasive “administrative” searches. A description of each individual amicus appears in the immediately preceding motion for leave to file.

Amici respectfully submit that rental-home inspection programs such as City Local Law 3 in the City of Rochester constitute one of the most egregious and unjustified intrusions into the privacy and sanctity of homes of law-abiding citizens.

Across the nation, millions of Americans are being subjected to mandatory “inspections” conducted by government agents—which indisputably constitute “searches” for constitutional purposes—simply because they wish to live in a rental home. The city of Rochester’s suspicionless “inspection” warrants program allows the city to “search” tenants’ homes for possible, yet unspecified, housing code violations. The warrant applications rely on Local Law 3, which removes the requirement that city officials have probable cause that particular evidence of an offense will be found in the home. The warrants remain valid for 45 days, thus permitting multiple entries by city employees, as the most private details of tenants’ lives are exposed to government inspectors who are subject to hardly any restrictions. Courts are no longer involved after the issuance of the warrants, and the searches sanction videotaping and photography of the home—which visual and other information becomes publicly available via FOIA request. Any evidence of crime discovered can be reported to police, and tenants are left to try to repair the financial, emotional, and other damage inflicted on their lives. Very little is required for a showing of “reasonableness” towards the issuance of the warrants at issue. Camara v. Municipal Court stands alone in this Court’s relevant jurisprudence and only suggests “standards” for “administrative” warrants in dictum. Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523, 534-539 (1967).

In the instant case, the lower court issued the warrant simply because the inspection program exists and these rental homes were due an inspection at the expiration of a statutory six-year period. Such administrative searches are significant intrusions on Fourth Amendment interests, and the reasons offered for upholding them are insufficient to justify so substantial a weakening of constitutional protections. Similar inspection legislation has proliferated in counties and municipalities across the United States for vaguely stated reasons that lack empirical justification and, consequently, provide inadequate protection for privacy interests.

Amici urge this Court to hear this challenge to stem the flow of these harassing invasions and restate the Fourth Amendment’s protection of individual rights.

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