HAMPTON -- The ACLU of Virginia said Tuesday they've warned Hampton officials that a new ordinance allowing inspection of rental units without a warrant infringes on the constitutional rights of owners and tenants.
The ordinance, which City Council approved in October 2013, establishes several “inspection districts” in Hampton. Rental units in these areas are subject to periodic entry by building inspectors, although not more than once per year. Building owners are required to allow the inspection and arrange for it to occur. If they or their tenants refuse to allow the inspection, the owners can be punished with a fine of up to $2,500.
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In a letter sent Monday to the City Attorney Vanessa T. Valldejuli, ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg says the ordinance violates the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches, and should be repealed or amended.
"If there is one thing every American understands, it's that government officials don't have the right to enter our homes unless they have a warrant or there's a true emergency," said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga. "This ordinance is about periodic checks to make sure rental properties are meeting building code requirements, not emergencies, and that means inspectors must take a few moments to obtain a warrant if the tenant or owner does not voluntarily consent to the search."
Lat year, when city leaders were considering the inspection program, they told 13News Now they believe code violations and vandalism can sometimes attract criminals.
"This would be under the Virginia Code. It's to protect the health, safety and welfare of our citizens. You can't do it citywide," Hampton Communication Director Robin McCormick.
The program was meant to target areas that already have problems or help prevent deterioration, officials said.
"We need to shore up those homes for residents that are already there to ensure that the criminal element doesn't take over," McCormick added.
According to the ACLU, a similar ordinance was proposed in Chesterfield County in 2009, but was withdrawn after the ACLU of Virginia sent a letter explaining that the ordinance was unconstitutional.
"Local governments have wide latitude to enforce building codes," added Gastañaga. "But our Constitution demands checks and balances, which is why code enforcement officials must have a warrant issued by a judge when they want to enter your home without your permission."
Click here to read the letter sent to the Hampton Rental Inspectors.