Camara v. Municipal Court of City and County of San Francisco
A public health inspector entered appellant's apartment to inspect for violations of the housing code, and the building's manager informed him that appellant was using the rear of the ground floor as a personal residence, which was in violation of the building's occupancy permit. The inspector demanded to inspect the premises, but appellant refused to permit it. After several demands and a citation, appellant was arrested and charged with refusing permit a lawful inspection.
Are administrative health and safety searches without a warrant or consent permissible under the Fourth Amendment?
What probable cause is needed for a warrant for an administrative search?
Searches without a warrant or consent are per se unreasonable. While administrative searches have legislative safeguards and getting a warrant would be little more than a "rubber stamp," property owners would not know when or to what extent an inspector is allowed to search. This requires a judge to give an individualized review, broad statutory safeguards are not sufficient, especially when invoking those safeguards at the wrong time is a crime. These searches are in the public interest, but they can still be done; a warrant just has to be obtained first.
Probable cause is required for a warrant. While criminal investigations are also in the public interest, probable cause that evidence will be found is required to search therefor in such cases. However, unlike those cases, housing codes are designed to protect entire cities from fires or epidemics which would ravage them or ugly conditions which could harm economic conditions. The only way to prevent such things from occurring are through routine inspections of all structures. These programs have long been accepted, the public interest demands that such standards are complied with, and they are impersonal and not trying to discover criminal evidence.
Administrative searches of people's homes are not valid under the Fourth Amendment without a warrant or consent.
Probable cause exists for an administrative search if reasonable legislative or administrative standards for conducting such inspection are satisfied for the dwelling. Such standards are reasonable if they are based on the passage of time, the nature of the building, or the condition of the area.