Zion, Illinois city inspectors want to come in and look around Dorice and Robert Pierce’s home, an apartment the couple has rented from building owner Josefina Lozano for nearly two decades. The inspectors don’t have any reason to suspect code violations, but they insist on coming in whenever they ask. If the inspectors are not let in, the city will punish Josefina with crippling fines that could climb to seven figures.

When interviewed by Chicago’s ABC 7, Dorice said that she and her husband have nothing to hide, but that inspectors can’t come in without a clear reason and without a warrant: “I’m not worried about anything, I just have a constitutional right for you to have a valid reason to enter my property.” Zion inspectors would never try to barge into a home owned by its occupant rather than rented. The simple fact is that the city is targeting rental units to discourage renters from living in Zion.

In 2015, the city considered a new rental inspection ordinance that would empower inspectors to crack down on rental units. With the city’s finances in disorder, the mayor and the council were looking for a scapegoat. That mayor openly blamed the fiscal crisis on the “overabundance of non-owner-occupied rental property.”

Zion’s high percentage of renters shouldn’t matter when it comes to the Fourth Amendment—and city demographics certainly do not give the city license to run roughshod over renters’ constitutional rights. Under the rental inspection ordinance that was passed, inspectors can demand entrance into renters’ homes without providing any reason. There does not have to be any apparent health or safety violation. If a renter refuses entry, an inspector doesn’t get a warrant. Instead, the landlord is sent a notice threatening fines of up to $750 a day per objecting resident. The landlord then faces a choice between fighting these punishing fines in court or forcing tenants to open their doors.


Josefina Lozano could be fined more than $1 million for standing up for her tenants’ rights not to be subjected to warrantless inspections

Josefina takes these threats seriously. Another landlord in Zion was recently fined $114,000 for his tenants’ refusal to consent to inspections. At the end of August, the city sent Josefina a letter giving her 30 days to comply. Since she has multiple tenants who have refused entry for several years, her fines could climb to more than a million dollars. Such fines would likely mean selling her buildings to another landlord who would almost certainly threaten eviction of any tenant who refuses inspections.

Rather than wait for the fines to come down, Josefina, the Pierces, and another long-time tenant, Della Sims, teamed up with the Institute for Justice to file a suit in federal court challenging the ordinance on constitutional grounds. Every American is protected under the Fourth Amendment from unreasonable searches. Without consent, the only way a government can force an inspection is with a warrant. And renters don’t have fewer rights just because they don’t own their home.

Unfortunately, this is a message many cities haven’t yet received, which is why IJ has been challenging rental inspection regimes in American cities for more than two decades. Due south of Chicago, Park Forest, Illinois similarly claimed the right to inspect renters’ homes whenever village inspectors wished. Tenants who refused were threatened with criminal prosecution. At one point, the village threatened a woman and her 12-year-old daughter with imprisonment.

In 1998, a federal judge struck down over half of the village’s inspection law as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. With the with the rest of the law dangling precariously, the city dropped its rental inspection program entirely.

Given the strong precedent established by IJ, Josefina and her tenants were granted at least a short reprieve from the crushing fines. IJ asked a federal judge to provide a temporary restraining order stopping inspections or fines as the case is considered. Instead of defending the ordinance’s constitutionality, the city agreed to suspend its punitive actions against Josefina. The city will now have to answer Josefina’s complaint in federal court.

Later in the same television interview, Dorice was clear to Zion inspectors: “If you want to come in here, go get a search warrant. Because I’m not just letting you in because you want to come in.” She’s standing up for her rights and, by doing so, hopefully she will take down an unconstitutional policy that threatens everyone in Zion.