Last week the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed to hear a case in which the Institute for Justice is challenging a local ordinance that lets housing inspectors roam people's apartments to make sure they're up to code. Red Wing, Minnesota, began requiring the inspections in 2006 as a condition of granting rental licenses to landlords. If a landlord or occupant does not agree to an inspection, the city can ask a judge for a warrant. But because the visits are classified as "administrative inspections," the city does not have to show there is any reason to suspect that a particular building is substandard. Armed with administrative warrants, inspectors can poke their noses into tenants' bedrooms, bathrooms, closets, and even, until a recent revision of the law, refrigerators and medicine cabinets. Although they are ostensibly looking for hazards that need to be corrected, they are expected to report evidence of certain crimes—including methamphetamine production, child abuse, elder abuse, and pet abuse—to the police. Inspectors thus can serve as proxies for the police, who would not be allowed to search people's homes without probable cause to support a criminal search warrant.
"Under Red Wing's rental inspection ordinance," I.J. notes, "it is easier for the government to force its way into the homes of law-abiding citizens than it is to search the home of a suspected criminal."