EDITORIAL: Renting away our rights

Bureaucrats shouldn’t be able to drop into homes, uninvited

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There can be no rest when it comes to defending constitutional rights. Government at every level constantly chips away at the fundamental principle that Americans should just be left alone if they’re not doing anything wrong.

Busybodies accept no such limit on what they can do. The city of Red Wing, Minn., adopted a city ordinance authorizing local bureaucrats to barge into the home of anyone who happens to be a renter. The purported intent was to identify building code violations — in the name of safety, naturally. The regulation even specified “containers, drawers, or medicine cabinets” could not be opened and their contents examined unless “reasonably necessary.” Once these nosy civil servants started having a look around, they didn’t identify serious, life-threatening flaws in crumbling buildings. Instead, they took note of missing doorstops and dirty stovetops, situations for which they demanded correction.

Understandably, some residents and landlords had a problem with this practice. With the help of the Institute for Justice (IJ), those affected filed a lawsuit in 2006 to force the city to respect their privacy. “People don’t think of someone going through their entire home against their will as a relatively limited invasion,” said Dana Berliner, the IJ senior attorney who argued the case. “They see it as an appalling violation of their most private space.” Minnesota’s Supreme Court has heard the arguments and will rule on the matter later this year.

The sticking point is Camara v. Municipal Court, a 45-year-old U.S. Supreme Court precedent giving the green light to the concept of “administrative warrants” that serve as a blank check for local governments to ignore the requirement that searches be based on some kind of probable cause. This dismal ruling allows municipalities in more than a dozen states to snoop inside rental units hunting for trivial violations, but the Minnesota case represents the first legal challenge to reach a state’s high court. That’s not surprising since, on their own, renters aren’t going to have the resources needed to mount what, here, has been a seven-year battle.

This is a fight that needs to be won, because the country has been headed in the wrong direction for far too long. “The Fourth Amendment has been changing into just a protection for criminals against finding evidence of their crimes instead of what it was meant to be: a protection for the innocent in their privacy to just lead their own lives,” Ms. Berliner told The Washington Times. “The purpose is to protect ordinary, law-abiding citizens and that has been lost.”

The Minnesota justices can decide this case based solely on the state constitution’s protection against unreasonable searches. That’s a great start, but the Camara decision also needs to be overturned before the administration has a chance to dispatch agents to our homes looking for contraband like incandescent light bulbs or garbage that hasn’t been placed in the government-approved recycle bin.

The Washington Times

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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