City ordered to release records on 'unconstitutional home inspections'

City ordered to release records on ‘unconstitutional home inspections’

A Pennsylvania judge has ordered the borough of Pottstown to hand over its records about a program allowing city inspectors to enter and search the homes of renters without a warrant, probable cause or suspicion.

“Pottstown’s attempts to keep its unconstitutional inspections hidden from public view were always meritless, and we’re pleased to see the court recognize it as such,” attorney Robert Peccola said. “With these records, we will be one step closer to vindicating Pottstown residents’ constitutional rights.”

Judge Richard P. Haaz for the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, rejected a demand from Pottstown for a protective order in the lawsuit brought by the Institute for Justice on behalf of renters, a landlord and other residents.

The plaintiffs argue the inspections violate Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution’s right to privacy in the home.

They previously sought access to various city documents and obtained a court order. But Pottstown officials refused to comply.

Instead, they insisted that the records be kept secret and that the plaintiffs’ access be severely limited.

“And that’s not all – Pottstown claimed, for the first time in the three years of this litigation, that producing these documents was so burdensome that the plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of the rental ordinance should pay for what the court had ordered. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, in reaction to Pottstown’s obstinate unwillingness to satisfy its discovery obligations, asked the court to allow the plaintiffs to appoint a computer forensics expert trained in data recovery to retrieve the borough’s files. Judge Haaz granted this request,” IJ said.

The law allows the borough to enter residents’ homes without cause and without the residents’ consent, IJ pointed out.

“This makes sure that as the lawsuit now proceeds on remand, the residents will have a full record of how these inspections are actually conducted — and what inspectors actually do once they are inside peoples’ homes.”

The court also ruled the tenants can challenge the law without being subjected to the “invasive rental inspections.”

“After Pottstown tenants Dottie and Omar Rivera and their longtime landlord, Steve Camburn, refused to allow inspectors inside their home, Pottstown obtained administrative warrants to search inside – but with no suspicion that anything was wrong. The borough also attempted to search the non-rental family home of Pottstown residents Thomas, Kathleen, and Rosemarie O’Connor without their consent and with no search warrant whatsoever,” IJ said.

“To require tenants to endure the inspections before challenging the inspection requirement would render tenants’ Article I, Section 8 privacy rights illusory,” the court declared.

A previous court opinion written by Judges Michael Wojcik, Christine Fizzano Cannon and Ellen Ceisler said the purpose of the town’s attempt to impose mandatory inspections is “to encourage owners and occupants to maintain and improve the quality of rental housing.”

Officials want inspections of all rental units every two years, and “if voluntary access for an inspection is denied, the ordinance allows the borough to apply for an administrative warrant.”

Tenants contend the inspections violate their rights because there are no requirements for an “individualized probable cause to believe any building code violation exists.”

“Tenants also point out that each inspector is instructed to share with police any observation of an item in a rental unit that the inspector, in his total discretion, considers an indicator of criminal activity,” IJ said.

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City ordered to release records on ‘unconstitutional home inspections’