Illinois city backs away from heavy-handed rental inspections rule

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After threatening a landlord with fines for not compelling her tenants to allow warrantless inspections of their homes, the city of Zion, Illinois, agreed in a settlement temporarily to stop pursuing the landlord while the landlord seeks a ruling in a federal civil rights lawsuit declaring a local ordinance unconstitutional.

Zion’s far-reaching rental inspection ordinance gave it the authority to fine landlords for failing to compel tenants to allow the allegedly unconstitutional searches and even went as far as allowing for the landlord to lose the right to rent out properties.

The plaintiffs, landlord Josefina Lozano, and her tenants, Robert Pierce, Dorice Pierce, and Della Sims, had filed a civil rights lawsuit “challenging the City of Zion’s unconstitutional rental inspection program, which punishes individuals for exercising their clearly established Fourth Amendment rights,” according to the complaint lodged with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

Lozano immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico as a child and has been investing in real estate since 1984. In 2005, she obtained a law degree. She purchased two multi-family properties in Zion in the early 1990s, and some of the tenants have rented from her for decades. Lozano objected to what she considered to be the city’s violation of her tenants’ rights.

Rob Peccola, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm based in Arlington, Virginia, that has been representing the landlord and tenants, said in a statement he was pleased with the settlement.

“We are overjoyed that, for the time being, Josefina and her tenants will not be punished for standing up for their constitutional rights,” he said.

“Courts again and again have affirmed that renters do not have to open up their homes to government inspectors without a warrant. Today’s order is temporary but we expect it will be extended as we challenge the city’s unconstitutional ordinance.”

“I’m grateful that, for now, Zion will not be able to punish me for standing up for my tenants’ rights,” said Josefina Lozano in the Institute’s statement. “The people who rent from me deserve the same protection of their constitutional rights as homeowners.”

According to the Institute for Justice, in Zion inspectors can demand access to renters’ homes without providing any reason. If a renter refuses entry, the landlord is sent a notice threatening fines of up to $750 a day per objecting resident. Another landlord in the city was recently assessed $114,000 in fines for his tenants’ refusal to consent to inspections. The village of Park Forest, Illinois, claimed a similar right to inspect renters’ homes on demand, at one point threatening a woman and her 12-year daughter with jail time.

In the lawsuit at hand Lozano and her tenants cited Camara v. Municipal Court, a 1967 Supreme Court ruling that held the Fourth Amendment requires a government official to obtain consent or an “administrative warrant” before carrying out a rental inspection of a tenant’s home.

Officials in Zion found this constitutional obstacle inconvenient, according to the complaint, so when tenants did not consent to city inspectors entering their homes, the city government then threatened the landlord with “draconian punishments—fines of $750 per day and a revocation of the right to rent the property—unless the landlord coerces the tenants into ‘consenting’ to a search.”

Zion notified the plaintiffs that it wanted to inspect their homes but the plaintiffs withheld consent, which led the city to threaten the landlord with monetary penalties unless she strong-armed the tenants into “‘consenting’ to searches of their homes,” the complaint stated.

After a hearing before Judge Mary M. Rowland the city agreed, at least for now, not to punish the landlord or her tenants for allegedly violating the local ordinance.

Zion officials had not responded to a request for comment as of press time.

The lawsuit continues.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared Oct. 18, 2019, in The Epoch Times.