Attorneys slug it out over rental inspectionsRed Wing and a group of local landlords and tenants were back in court Friday rehashing their dispute over the city's mandatory rental inspections. The matter remains unsettled despite three earlier court rulings.
By: Jon Swedien, The Republican Eagle
Red Wing and a group of local landlords and tenants were back in court Friday rehashing their dispute over the city's mandatory rental inspections. The matter remains unsettled despite three earlier court rulings.
Landlords and renters claim citywide rental inspections violate their privacy rights. The city asserts it has the right to conduct inspections for safety reasons.
"This case is about the power of the government to enter a person's home without probable cause," Institute for Justice attorney Dana Berliner said Friday. The public interest law firm represents the nine local property owners and the two renters.
City officials, meanwhile, argue the inspections safeguard renters and property owners from unseen dangers lurking in Red Wing's aging housing stock. And they say that unlike criminal searches, they needn't show probable cause on an individual basis to justify the inspections.
To date the case has cost the city $158,446 in legal fees.
The case, heard at the Goodhue County Justice Center by First District Court Judge Robert R. King Jr., is a combination of two early cases. It contains the city's request for administrative warrants that would allow inspectors into the properties of non-complying landlords. The city is seeking warrants against those challenging the inspections and against dozens of other residents who haven't complied with the inspection program.
It also includes a request from the landlords to overturn the city's right to seek warrants that would force inspections - on the grounds that the inspections are unconstitutional.
@Sub heads:Holding no punches
@Normal: Attorneys for the Institute of Justice attacked the code from all angles. They argue it's overly subjective, unevenly applied, largely ineffectual and unnecessary. And they say the threat of inspections has harmed their clients.
Most of their oral arguments Friday attempted to show that federal and state law supports claims that Red Wing's inspections are invasive.
"The privacy rights outweigh the city's need for searches," Berliner added.
@Sub heads:City's counter
@Normal: Red Wing's attorney, John Baker, countered that safety concerns are merited. He argued that often a risk hidden in one apartment could easily spread to another, prompting uniform inspections.
He said Institute for Justice attorneys "make an effort to trivialize safety."
Baker also took a couple of shots at the law firm itself. In his legal briefs he said the Institute for Justice has acted more like lawmakers than lawyers. He wrote: The law doesn't allow for a "disappointed special interest group to substitute its own concept of wisdom for that of the citizen's elected officials."
Baker argued his opponent's request to strip the city of the ability to seek administrative warrants is not within the district court's authority.
@Sub heads:Previous rounds
@Normal: First District Court Judge Thomas Bibus denied the city warrants in August 2007. He ruled on the narrow grounds that the city's original code didn't include language allowing for the zone-based inspections it was conducting.
The city revised the code, explicitly authorizing zone-based searches and again sought warrants.
In April of 2008, U.S. District Judge John R. Tunheim heard the landlord's argument to overturn the city's right to seek warrants in federal court. Tunheim sent the case back down to the state level.
A month later, First District Court Judge Timothy Blakely heard both sides' requests. He ruled the inspections left renters open to "privacy concerns." He said data collected during inspections could conceivably make its way onto the Internet and be seen by the public. But while he denied the city warrants, he didn't rule on the constitutional claims.
The city again revised its code, with Blakely's ruling in mind.