Warrantless Administrative Searches Must Provide Due Process to Property Owners
Recently, a federal appeals court for the Sixth Circuit decided the case of Benjamin v. Stemple, which upheld the authority of a city to enter and secure dangerous vacant buildings without a warrant. An ordinance in the City of Saginaw required that vacant property owners sign a consent form allowing city inspectors to enter and secure any vacant buildings that were determined to be in a dangerous condition. Saginaw property owners challenged the registration form in court, saying that it forced them to consent to unconstitutional warrantless searches of their properties. Ultimately, the court dismissed the case in favor of the city.
The court reasoned that warrantless administrative searches for building-code compliance are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment but only if property owners first have the chance for a fair hearing. Thus, the required consent form was not enough. The city ordinance provided notice to the property owners that their buildings were deemed dangerous and an opportunity for the owners to challenge that determination in front of an administrative hearing board. Because the property owners received due process, the case was dismissed.
City officials and property owners alike should take note of this decision because it stands as an example of a city’s exercise of authority to protect its residents from dangerous buildings as long as affected property owners receive due process.