Iowa renters say routine city inspections violate their privacy rights

By: - July 28, 2022 4:31 pm

Lawyers for Iowa renters say city inspectors can gather information about people's sex lives, medical conditions and religious beliefs. (Photo by Getty Images)

The ability of Iowa cities to conduct routine inspections of rental properties is being challenged in state court.

Lawyers for a small group of landlords and renters in western Iowa warn that cities’ building and rental inspectors can use their access to a person’s property to gather information about the occupant’s sex life, medical conditions and religious and political beliefs.

The inspectors, they say, enter “the most intimate confines of tenants’ homes — including bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens and closets — in search of housing code violations,” and they’re hoping the Iowa courts will put a stop to that.

Last year, the city council in Orange City approved a rental housing inspection program that calls for the city’s Code Enforcement Department to routinely inspect, every five years, all apartments and houses offered that are occupied on a rental basis.

The department can also conduct inspections after fielding complaints of possible building code violations. The city ordinances provides that if a landlord or renter refuses entry, the city can seek an administrative search warrant that would allow inspectors onto the property.

Around the time the city approved the program, it asked Beverly Van Dam of 3D Rentals and Josh Dykstra of DP Homes to register their rental units with the city.

A few weeks later, Van Dam and Dykstra, along with their renters, sent the city a set of letters objecting to the routine inspection of their properties.

In the letters, they argued that a nonconsensual inspection conducted through the use of an administrative search warrant issued with no specific probable cause is a violation of the Iowa Constitution.

The city responded by indicating it intended to continue to pursue the process of inspecting rental units.

Days later, Van Dam and Dykstra and their renters filed suit against the city, asking for a temporary injunction to block the inspections and seeking a court declaration that the inspections were unlawful.

The landlords and renters argue that the process for obtaining an administrative search warrant simply to fulfill the requirement of an inspection every five years fails to satisfy a legal requirement that the city have probable cause to conduct a nonconsensual inspection.

To establish probable cause, they say, there “must be some plausible basis for believing that a violation is likely to be found.”

Last October, a judge rejected the city’s motion to dismiss the case, noting that the Iowa Supreme Court has held that the Iowa Constitution’s protection against unreasonable seizures and searches applies not just in criminal cases, but in civil actions, as well. The judge held that the question surrounding the constitutionality of the ordinance would be properly considered at a later date.

Since then, the two sides have battled over access to information, with the landlords’ and renters’ Iowa attorney, Alan Ostrgren of the Kirkwood Institute, questioning whether the city had fully complied with his requests for information.

In April, Ostergren asked the court to order the city turn over the records.

Recently, the court overruled the city’s objections with regard to a dozen requests for information, but agreed with the city that six requests were irrelevant to the case at hand.

In addition, the court ordered the city to “update their incomplete responses to questions” posed by the plaintiffs.

The outcome of the case could have major implications for other Iowa cities and their ability to enforce building code requirements that are intended to protect both renters and neighbors of rental properties.

According to the Iowa League of Cities, many cities require rental housing units to be inspected before a rental permit is granted, and they also impose a regular inspection schedule to ensure that properties continue to meet the ever-changing requirements related to safety and design standards.

Even if the requirements have not changed over time, some cities will require periodic inspections to determine whether property owners are maintaining their units with regard to fire extinguishers, entries and exits, smoke detectors and appliances.

Many cities conduct these types of routine inspections on a three-year cycle, according to the Iowa League of Cities.

Assisting Ostergren with the lawsuit against Orange City is The Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based law firm that says it fights for Americans’ “constitutional rights.”

On its website, the institute warns the public that renters are “subject to mandatory code searches where inspectors — strangers — enter their home without their permission … Once inside, the inspector views everything about the tenant, from medications, holy books, and political tracts, to information about their sex life, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”

The institute says it is “striving to convince state high courts” to reject past court decisions and require that cities “obtain real warrants based on individualized probable cause before entering people’s homes.”

One reason the Institute for Justice is pursuing a case in Orange City, a town of 6,500 residents: Iowa’s state constitution “provides more protection” from unjustified warrants than the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, the institute says.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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