Chesterfield kills controversial warrantless-search proposal

The Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously last night to kill a controversial proposal that would have enabled county inspectors to enter rental units without first obtaining a warrant.

Under the proposed ordinance, building owners in designated districts would have been required to allow inspections of the interior of their properties once notified by county officials. If they or their tenants refused, the owners could be punished with a fine of up to $2,500 for the first offense, with harsher punishments for continued violations.

“The ACLU does not oppose property inspections,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis, “but we, the Supreme Court and nearly every American believe the government needs a warrant to enter your home.”

“Warrants to conduct inspections of homes are actually very easy to get,” added Willis, “but they provide a judicial check on the executive branch to make sure government officials are not abusing their authority. We did not oppose the entire ordinance, just the part that allowed Chesterfield County to inflict harsh penalties on individuals who exercised their constitutional right to not let the government enter their homes without a warrant.”

In a letter sent in late September to the Board of Supervisors and County Attorney Steven L. Micas, ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg wrote that the proposed ordinance violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches, and that the ACLU was prepared to mount a legal challenge if the measure was not amended before passage or rejected altogether.

Many Chesterfield County landlords joined the ACLU in opposing the measure. Recently, the Richmond Times Dispatch praised the ACLU for its stand against the ordinance and urged Supervisors to kill it.

In Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523 (1967), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment protects the right of tenants and owners to refuse warrantless inspections with impunity. In order to pass constitutional muster, the proposed Chesterfield ordinance would have had to been amended to make it clear that tenants and owners could refuse to consent to inspections and that inspectors must have a warrant when consent is not given.

A copy of Glenberg’s letter to the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors can be found online at http://www.acluva.org/newsreleases2009/Oct13.html#letter.

 

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