Richmond, VA -- The ACLU of Virginia has warned Hampton officials that a new ordinance allowing inspection of rental units without a warrant infringes on the constitutional rights of owners and tenants.
In a letter sent yesterday to the City Attorney Vanessa T. Valldejuli, ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg says the ordinance violates the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches, and should be repealed or amended.
"If there is one thing every American understands, it's that government officials don't have the right to enter our homes unless they have a warrant or there's a true emergency," said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga.  "This ordinance is about periodic checks to make sure rental properties are meeting building code requirements, not emergencies, and that means inspectors must take a few moments to obtain a warrant if the tenant or owner does not voluntarily consent to the search."
"Local governments have wide latitude to enforce building codes," added Gastañaga.  "But our Constitution demands checks and balances, which is why code enforcement officials must have a warrant issued by a judge when they want to enter your home without your permission."
The ordinance, which City Council approved in October 2013, establishes several “inspection districts” in Hampton.  Rental units in these areas are subject to periodic entry by building inspectors, although not more than once per year.  Building owners are required to allow the inspection and arrange for it to occur.  If they or their tenants refuse to allow the inspection, the owners can be punished with a fine of up to $2,500.
The Supreme Court has held that the Fourth Amendment protects the right of tenants and owners to refuse warrantless inspections with impunity.  To be constitutional, the Hampton ordinance must be amended to make it clear that tenants and owners may refuse to consent to inspections and that inspectors must have a warrant when consent is not given.
A similar ordinance was proposed in Chesterfield County in 2009, but was withdrawn after the ACLU of Virginia sent a letter explaining that the ordinance was unconstitutional.