Orange City’s Inspection Program
Forced rental inspections are spreading like wildfire in Iowa. State law requires that cities with populations of 15,000 or more adopt a “program for regular rental inspections.” Orange City has a population of just over 6,000 but nevertheless passed a rental registration and inspection law in February 2021.
Orange City’s inspection ordinance requires property owners to obtain a “rental permit” before leasing their property to tenants. As part of the application for a rental permit, property owners must pay a fee of $100 plus $15 for each additional unit, and $50 for each unit that is not registered by the deadline. These rental permits are valid for five years. All rental units subject to the city’s ordinance must be inspected every five years. Inspections may be held more frequently, however, if “concerns or violations” were found in prior inspections or if the city receives complaints of possible building code violations.
The rental inspection process is as follows: First, the city must notify the property owner that it intends to inspect a unit at least 15 days prior to conducting the inspection. The owner is responsible for informing tenants about the scheduled inspection. Second, the property owner or their representative must be present at the inspection. Third, if the inspector arrives but the landlord or a representative is not present, the owner must pay a $50 “no show” fee. Finally, before inspecting a unit, the inspector must present their credentials to tenants occupying that unit.
If a tenant refuses entry, the inspector “shall have recourse to the remedies provided by law to secure entry, including, but not limited to, obtaining an administrative warrant to search the rental unit.” Once inside, inspectors can view everything about a tenant once they are inside the home: religious, political, and medical information, as well as information about tenants’ children, families, and romantic lives. Inspectors can also learn about a tenant’s socio-economic status—something tenants can find embarrassing and even humiliating. Most dangerous of all, inspectors can also report suspected criminal activity to the police, meaning rental inspections can lead to arrest.
Given the ordinance’s breadth, the potential consequences of these inspections could be severe. Landlords facing similar programs have reported, for example, that inspectors have baselessly called child protective services once inside tenants’ homes. And inspectors can also freely call law enforcement if they subjectively believe drug paraphernalia or other contraband is present in the home.
On February 22, Orange City sent letters to property owners demanding that they register their rental properties under the new law. Attached to the February letter is an “Application for Rental Permit,” which starts the clock ticking for the inspection.
On Monday, April 26, 2021, a coalition of tenants and landlords objected to these inspections in writing. But on May 13, Orange City responded that it would nevertheless move forward with the inspections. The city confirmed that, in the absence of a tenant’s consent, inspectors would still “take the necessary steps to complete the process per the terms of the ordinance”—obtaining an administrative warrant.
IJ represents two Orange City families and their landlords.
Tenant Amanda Wink and Landlady Bev Van Dam
Amanda rents a single-family house from Bev and Bert, where she lives with her fiancé, two dogs, and children from a prior relationship. Amanda is a private person—she actually moved back to her hometown of Orange City for more privacy. Because Amanda is pregnant and her fiancé is often away from home as a truck driver, she is even more opposed to having strangers in her home.
Bev and Bert Van Dam own seven properties, five of which are in Orange City. They did not get into the rental business on purpose: Fifteen years ago, when Bev and Bert were running a dairy farm, they began renting a property to an employee who needed housing. They both have full-time jobs outside of their rental business. Bev and Bert have a relatively hands-off approach and believe that their tenants deserve the same privacy as homeowners. They do not go onto the rental properties unless a tenant raises an issue. Bev and Amanda know each other from working in the same dental office.
Tenants Bryan and Erika and their Landlord, Josh Dykstra
Bryan Singer and Erika Nordyke live in a single-family home that they rent from Josh Dykstra and his business partners. They moved to Orange City about six years ago for Bryan’s job. Bryan grew up about 20 miles from Orange City, while Erika is from Southeast Iowa. Erika works at Hope Haven, a facility in Orange City that helps disabled individuals become more independent and successful. She has worked there for a little over two years. Bryan is an aerospace engineer; he has worked at the same building for 7–8 years, but the business changed hands about two years ago.
They have been living in their single-family home for six years. Living with them are a dog, two cats, and some other small pets. They describe their relationship with their landlord, Josh Dykstra, as positive. If they need something fixed in the house, they reach out to Josh and he either gives them the number for someone to call or sends someone to repair the problem. They have not had any problems with Josh as a landlord.
Erika and Bryan are both against strangers coming into their homes. They each described why having someone snoop around is an invasion of privacy and noted that they would be uncomfortable with someone seeing the most intimate parts of their home.
Josh has worked hard to build a business that involves multiple rental properties. He prides himself on being a responsible landlord who is responsive to his tenants’ needs and respectful of their privacy. He finds this law an affront to the goodwill he has developed with his tenants. He does not want to be the proxy enforcer for a law he objects to.
Each of these tenants values their privacy, and they will not consent to an inspection of their homes. They insist that the city—at the very least—obtain a warrant before conducting a wall-to-wall search of their most private spaces.
Watering Down Privacy Rights
The Fourth Amendment’s requirement of probable cause once served as a bulwark against blanket government searches of private property. But, in the 1967 case Camara v. Municipal Court, the U.S. Supreme Court carved out a narrow exception to the probable cause requirement for “administrative inspections.” Officials still have to get a warrant to conduct these inspections, but—under this interpretation of the federal Constitution—they only need to show that there are “reasonable legislative or administrative standards” in place in order to obtain the warrant. As a result, the government can enter people’s homes so long as it has some standards in place that will guide the inspection.
Relying on Camara, the Iowa Supreme Court had previously blessed so-called administrative warrants under the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution in 2007. But since that time, independent constitutional interpretation has experienced an unmitigated revival at the Iowa high court. In 2010, the Court held that “while United States Supreme Court cases are entitled to respectful consideration, we will engage in independent analysis of the content of our state search and seizure provisions.” The Court held that the Iowa Constitution was more protective than the Fourth Amendment by holding that a law enforcement officer violated Art. I, § 8 of the Iowa Constitution by searching a parolee without individualized suspicion. Thus began a revival of privacy protection under Art. I, § 8.
Iowa’s independent privacy protections built to a crescendo in 2014 when the Court both construed Art. I, § 8 independently and explicitly overruled all prior cases analyzing that provision under a lockstep approach in State v. Short. In that case, officers searched a probationers without a valid warrant, but the lower court upheld the search on the ground that the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld similar searches of probationers’ homes on a showing of reasonable suspicion. The Iowa Supreme Court, however, affirmed the Iowa Constitution’s “approach to independent state constitutional law under article I, section 8.” It went further, holding that any cases which “can be read as having implications contrary to the above approach . . . are specifically overruled.” The Court ultimately concluded that, in the absence of a valid warrant, the search of the defendant’s apartment violated Art. 1 § 8 was invalid. The Iowa Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Short has paved the way for a challenge to administrative search warrants in the Iowa state courts.
Protecting the Sanctity of all Homes under the Iowa Constitution
Orange City’s rental inspection’s program violates Article I, Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution, which guarantees the right to keep the government from unreasonably intruding upon private property. This lawsuit asks the court to declare Orange City’s use of administrative warrants to inspect rental homes unconstitutional and to stop local officials from obtaining administrative warrants without traditional probable cause. More broadly, this lawsuit asserts that the Iowa Constitution provides greater search and seizure protections than the federal Constitution as it has been interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Camara.
Steeped in a tradition of independent jurisprudence and valuing individual liberty, the Iowa Supreme Court has repeatedly interpreted Article I, Section 8 to provide greater protection from unreasonable searches and seizures than the Fourth Amendment. This lawsuit directly advances the property rights protections protected by the Iowa Constitution. Article I, Section 8 has a simple promise for Iowans: If the government wants to get into your home without your consent, whether you rent or own it, it needs a warrant backed by individualized probable cause.
The time has come to reexamine Camara v. Municipal Court. A victory in this case would travel under the Iowa Constitution to protect Iowa tenants and landlords from cities invading their privacy and property rights.
The Litigation Team
This case is being led by IJ Attorney Rob Peccola and IJ Attorney John Wrench. They will be assisted by Iowa attorney Alan Ostergren.
About the Institute for Justice
The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty and the nation’s leading advocate for property rights. IJ has successfully challenged a rental inspection program in Yuma, Arizona, and is currently challenging the rental inspection regimes of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, Zion, Illinois, and Seattle, Washington. IJ has spent more than 25 years fighting for the rights of all Americans to be secure in their homes and businesses and safe from abusive government policies. IJ’s victories have saved homes and businesses, including the home of an Atlantic City widow; homes and businesses in Lakewood, Ohio; and a boxing gym for inner-city youth in National City, California.