In a legal case that should interest rental property owners statewide, the City of Highland in San Bernardino County is being sued for trying to arm-twist landlords and tenants into allowing warrantless inspections of their homes.
In other words, the city is trying to coerce property owners and tenants into surrendering a fundamental constitutional protection: the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee that government officials cannot search private property unless they first obtain a warrant.
To be sure, the plaintiffs in this case – property owner Karl Trautwein and the tenants in one of the homes he owns – have nothing at all to hide. An investor with a number of homes around Southern California, Karl takes pride in maintaining all his properties to a high standard and keeping tenants satisfied.
What Karl and the tenants who are joining in the lawsuit resent is Highland’s attack on their fundamental privacy and property rights.
Indeed, in a sign of the importance of the case, they are represented by Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, the nation’s leading legal watchdog for property rights and individual liberty. Donor-supported PLF represents these plaintiffs free of charge, as with all its clients.
Karl and his tenants are victims of local government’s plan for a sweeping regime of unjustified rental-property inspections throughout the city – and its heavy-handed strategy for imposing this agenda on owners and renters.
Instead of simply responding where there have been complaints about code violations, the city adopted the goal of aggressively inspecting all 4,800 rentals within city limits, whether or not there have been complaints.
To cut corners in this overwhelming task, officials are attempting to evade the constitutional requirement to seek administrative warrants for inspections. Instead of going to a court and showing cause to receive permission to inspect inside a home, the city is attempting to bully property owners and tenants into allowing inspectors in without a warrant.
Karl and his tenants have been subjected to bullying because they would not agree to let inspectors into their home. There have been no complaints about the property and the city has offered no evidence that it has any problems. So Karl and his tenants object to a baseless, uncalled-for, open-ended intrusion by government bureaucrats.
City officials didn’t respond to this refusal by seeking a warrant – because there were no grounds for one. Instead, the city resorted to threats and coercion. Karl was charged a “re-inspection fee” and was told that his rental license would not be renewed if he continued to refuse to allow a warrantless entry.
This pressure tactic is what the law calls an “unconstitutional condition” — i.e., Karl’s rental license is being held hostage unless he agrees to the condition that he and his tenants waive their Fourth Amendment rights. As the lawsuit points out, government cannot confront anyone with a false choice of this kind, which coerces them out of constitutional freedoms.
“With its crusade to inspect all rental properties, even those like mine without any tenant complaints, the city is wasting its resources and harassing law-abiding people,” said Karl. “Ironically, this is the kind of regulatory overkill that can reduce the supply of rental housing by causing conscientious and hard-working property owners to decide it’s not worth it.”
“There is no freedom without property rights and the privacy they protect,” he noted. “Privacy means no one can come inside your residence unless you invite them in. Cities have no business forcing their way into people’s homes. The Constitution provides a way for government to enter a home — by convincing a judge to issue a warrant based on probable cause. Highland wants to avoid the inconvenience of that constitutional requirement.”
“Violating the privacy rights of my residents without probable cause is as unnecessary as it is wrong,” he continued. “The city should not be violating their privacy for no good reason, and it can’t be permitted to go snooping without a warrant.”
Filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the case is Trautwein v. City of Highland, et al. More information, including the complaint, an explanatory blog post, a podcast, and a video statement, is available Pacific Legal Foundation’s website: www.pacificlegal.org
Meriem Hubbard is a Principal Attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation and Wencong Fa is a Staff Attorney with the foundation. They represent Karl Trautwein and his tenants in challenging Highland’s attempt to coerce them out of their Fourth Amendment rights. Donor-supported Pacific Legal Foundation www.pacificlegal.org is the leading watchdog organization that litigates for limited government, property rights, individual rights, and free enterprise, in courts nationwide. PLF represents all clients free of charge. For more information, visit www.pacificlegal.org.