An inspector entered an apartment building to make a routine annual inspection for possible violations of the city’s housing code. The building manager informed the inspector that the defendant, a lessee of the ground floor, was using the rear of his leasehold as a personal residence. The defendant refused to allow the inspector to enter his residence. The defendant was charged with the criminal violation of the code section which punished obstruction to inspect.
Whether inspectors can make warrantless entries to carry out their duties?
No. Inspectors must rely on consent, an exigency, or an inspection warrant to enter a premises to conduct an inspection.
At one time, the Supreme Court authorized the warrantless entries of residences to conduct safety inspections. However, the Court altered its position because: 1) the occupant does not know if his or her premises is covered by the inspection authority, 2) the occupant does not know the inspector’s authority, and 3) the occupant does not know if the inspector is acting under proper authority.
Typically, most entries can be obtained with consent from an occupant. Some entries can be justified by the exigency posed to public health (such as putrid food conditions). However, the remaining entries must be supported by a warrant.
The primary principle of the Fourth Amendment was to prohibit unreasonable searches. This usually means that searches must be supported by a warrant. “The warrant procedure is designed to guarantee that a decision to search private property is justified by a reasonable governmental interest.” In criminal cases, the government must establish probable cause of criminal activity. For inspection warrants, the government’s burden will depend on the type of inspection contemplated. “This is not to suggest that a health official need show the same kind of proof to a magistrate to obtain a warrant as one must who would search for the fruits or instrumentalities of crime. . . Experience may show the need for periodic inspections of certain facilities without a further showing of cause to believe that substandard conditions dangerous to the public are being maintained [citing Frank v. Maryland, 359 U.S. 360 (1959)].” In some instances, the passage of time may justify an inspection warrant.
387 U.S. 523, 87 S. Ct. 1727 (1967)