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L.A. Landlords Fight ‘Unconstitutional’ Housing Inspections

Landlords sued Los Angeles in a federal class action this week, claiming a rental ordinance gives city officials and employees law enforcement-like powers that violate protections against unlawful searches and seizures.

Pasadena landlord Brandi Garris and Venice landlord Jason Teague on Wednesday also sued Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department, formerly known as the Housing Department. They claim that City of Los Angeles Housing Code is “facially unconstitutional,” under the Fourth Amendment, and allow city employees to seize evidence and make arrests.

If landlords or tenants are uncooperative they can be charged with a criminal misdemeanor and fined $1,000 a day.

“The inspection ordinance in reality authorizes wholesale searches by law enforcement officers of every rental residence in the city without any showing of probable cause,” the lawsuit states.

The landlords cite the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in City of Los Angeles v. Patel, which affirmed a Ninth Circuit ruling that city officials could not force hotels to keep records of guest registries for 90 days.

The city said it needed access to guest registries day and night for the LAPD to combat prostitution and drug dealing in some motels. The motel owners successfully argued the spot checks violated their constitutional rights.

Garris and Teague say the city should modify the ordinance so that a neutral arbiter can review landlords’ objections before they face criminal or civil penalties.

Their attorney Dominic Surprenant, with Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, said the ordinance is unfair to landlords and tenants.

“It’s essentially saying to renters: ‘We’re going to send police officers — city inspectors who also have the powers of police officers — into your homes. And you can’t say no, and you can’t get a hearing,’” Surprenant said in a telephone interview.

Surprenant said there had been some “friction” between the city and the two landlords before they filed suit, but declined to comment on whether they faced criminal or civil liability.

University of Southern California adjunct assistant professor and constitutional expert Olu Orange said he was surprised the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office did not resolve the dispute before a lawsuit was filed.

“The ordinance as it’s drafted would seem to conflict with the current state of the law,” Orange said. “It makes sense that this would be a problem, because the ordinance seems to allow inspectors to bypass a determination that they should be on the premises to look for evidence of crime or misdeeds in the absence of there being a determination by a magistrate or some exigent circumstances.

“You can’t just write a law that lets government agents walk into people’s abodes and do stuff.” 

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