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Camara v. Municipal Court of the City and County of San Francisco

    Brief Fact Summary. An inspector from the Department of Health entered a home to investigate possible violations of a City’s housing code without a warrant.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. “[A]dministrative searches of the kind at issue here are significant intrusions upon the interests protected by the Fourth Amendment, that such searches when authorized and conducted without a warrant procedure lack the traditional safeguards which the Fourth Amendment guarantees to the individual, and that the reasons put forth in [Frank v. Maryland] and in other cases for upholding these warrantless searches are insufficient to justify so substantial a weakening of the Fourth Amendment’s protections.”

    Facts. “On November 6, 1963, an inspector of the Division of Housing Inspection of the San Francisco Department of Public Health entered an apartment building to make a routine annual inspection for possible violations of the city’s Housing Code.” The inspector was informed that the Appellant was using part of his leasehold as a personal residence. The inspector confronted the Appellant and demanded to inspect the premises because residential use was not allowed on the first floor of the apartment building. The Appellant did not allow the inspector to enter because he did not have a warrant.
    The inspector attempted to obtain access to Appellant’s apartment a second time two days later, and again the Appellant refused to grant him access. The Appellant then was sent a summons ordering him to appear at the district attorney’s office. The Appellant did not appear and a few weeks later two other inspectors attempted to gain access to his apartment and were again refused because they did not have a search warrant.
    A complaint was then filed against the Appellant for violation of the Housing Code. His demurrer was denied and he filed a writ of prohibition. The court of Appeals held the housing section “does not violate Fourth Amendment rights because it ‘is part of a regulatory scheme which is essentially civil rather than criminal in nature, inasmuch as that section creates a right of inspection which is limited in scope and may not be exercised under unreasonable conditions.’ ”

    Issue. “[W]hether administrative inspection programs, as presently authorized and conducted, violate Fourth Amendment rights as those rights are enforced against the States through the Fourteenth Amendment?”

    Held. Yes. “[Frank v. Maryland], to the extent that it sanctioned such warrantless inspections, must be overruled.”
    “In [Frank v. Maryland], [the Supreme Court] upheld the conviction of one who refused to permit a warrantless inspection of private premises for the purposes of locating and abating a suspected public nuisance.” “[T]he Frank opinion has generally been interpreted as carving out an additional exception to the rule that warrantless searches are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
    The majority here observed, “[t]he practical effect of this system is to leave the occupant subject to the discretion of the official in the field. This is precisely the discretion to invade private property which we have consistently circumscribed by a requirement that a disinterested party warrant the need to search. We simply cannot say that the protections provided by the warrant procedure are not needed in this context; broad statutory safeguards are no substitute for individualized review, particularly when those safeguards may only be invoked at the risk of a criminal penalty.”
    “Unfortunately, there can be no ready test for determining reasonableness [of a search] other than by balancing the need to search against the invasion which the search entails. But [the majority thought] that a number of persuasive factors combine to support the reasonableness of area code-enforcement inspections. First, such programs have a long history of judicial and public acceptance. Second, the public interest demands that all dangerous conditions be prevented or abated, yet it is doubtful that any other canvassing technique would achieve acceptable results. Many such conditions – faulty wiring is an obvious example – are not observable from outside the building and indeed may not be apparent to the inexpert occupant himself. Finally, because the inspections are neither personal in nature nor aimed at the discovery of evidence of crime, they involve a relatively limited invasion of the urban citizen’s privacy.”
    Further, “[after] concluded that the area inspection is a ‘reasonable’ search of private property within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, [the majority observed] it is obvious that ‘probable cause’ to issue a warrant to inspect must exist if reasonable legislative or administrative standards for conducting an area inspection are satisfied with respect to a particular dwelling. Such standards, which will vary with the municipal program being enforced, may be based upon the passage of time, the nature of the building (e. g., a multi-family apartment house), or the condition of the entire area, but they will not necessarily depend upon specific knowledge of the condition of the particular dwelling. It has been suggested that so to vary the probable cause test from the standard applied in criminal cases would be to authorize a ‘synthetic search warrant’ and thereby to lessen the overall protections of the Fourth Amendment.”
    Moreover, “[t]he warrant procedure is designed to guarantee that a decision to search private property is justified by a reasonable governmental interest. But reasonableness is still the ultimate standard. If a valid public interest justifies the intrusion contemplated, then there is probable cause to issue a suitably restricted search warrant. Such an approach neither endangers time-honored doctrines applicable to criminal investigations nor makes a nullity of the probable cause requirement in this area. It merely gives full recognition to the competing public and private interests here at stake and, in so doing, best fulfills the historic purpose behind the constitutional right to be free from unreasonable government invasions of privacy.”

    Discussion. The majority was careful not to limit all searches in emergency circumstances. It observed: “Since our holding emphasizes the controlling standard of reasonableness, nothing we say today is intended to foreclose prompt inspections, even without a warrant, that the law has traditionally upheld in emergency situations. On the other hand, in the case of most routine area inspections, there is no compelling urgency to inspect at a particular time or on a particular day. Moreover, most citizens allow inspections of their property without a warrant. Thus, as a practical matter and in light of the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that a warrant specify the property to be searched, it seems likely that warrants should normally be sought only after entry is refused unless there has been a citizen complaint or there is other satisfactory reason for securing immediate entry. Similarly, the requirement of a warrant procedure does not suggest any change in what seems to be the prevai
    ling local policy, in most situations, of authorizing entry, but not entry by force, to inspect.”


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