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Federal Court: Cities’ Rental Licensing and Inspection Requirements Unconstitutional

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Fourth Amendment secures property rights of landlords from unlawful searches and occupational licensing regulations in Ohio and nationwide

The Southern District of Ohio today ruled that the City of Portsmouth’s occupational licensing requirements imposed upon landlords – – rental property inspections and licensing fees – – violates the Fourth Amendment to the United State Constitution.

The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law’s victory on behalf of Portsmouth rental property owners Ron Baker, Nancy Ross, Thomas Howard, and Darren Oliver means that indiscriminate and warrantless government inspections of rental properties are unconstitutional nationwide, and that unlawfully-extracted “rental inspection fees” must be returned to the rental property owners who paid them.

These property owners had long rented their property in Portsmouth without license or inspections, and their properties had never been the subject of complaint by tenants, neighbors, or others. However, the City threatened to criminally prosecute and even imprison these landlords if they continued to rent their homes without first submitting to an unconstitutional warrantless search of the entire interior and exterior of these homes.

Judge Susan Dlott, of the Western Division of the Southern District of Ohio, held as follows:

  • “[T]he Court finds that the Portsmouth [Rental Dwelling Code] violates the Fourth Amendment insofar as it authorizes warrantless administrative inspections. It is undisputed that the [Rental Dwelling Code] affords no warrant procedure or other mechanism for precompliance review . . . the owners and/or tenants of rental properties in Portsmouth are thus faced with the choice of consenting to the warrantless inspection or facing criminal charges, a result the Supreme Court has expressly disavowed under the Fourth Amendment.”
  • “The inspections are also significantly intrusive. As the Supreme Court has noted, the ‘physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed.’”
  • “The search inspection sheet details eighty items to be inspected throughout the entirety of the rental property. The Court thus concludes that the intrusion is significant.”
  • “Taking into account the above factors—the significant expectation of privacy, the substantial intrusion into the home, and the inefficacy of the warrantless inspections on the proffered special need—the Court finds the warrantless inspections are unreasonable.”
  • “Having determined that the Code is not saved by special needs or the closely regulated industry exceptions, the Court concludes that the Code’s failure to include a warrant provision violates the Fourth Amendment.”

Both the United States and Ohio Supreme Court have invalidated warrantless inspections of rental property, and repeatedly held that warrantless administrative inspections of business property are generally invalid, absent exigent circumstances.  Read More

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