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Landlords take aim at Jackson's housing ordinance, attorney says the way it's enforced violates Constitution

Posted at 8:40 PM, Sep 22, 2022

JACKSON, Mich. — Several landlords are filing a lawsuit in federal court to challenge Jackson’s rental property ordinance.

The complaint filed in May takes aim at Jackson’s Chapter 14 Housing Ordinance. Attorney John Toivonen says the city has unlawfully collected $4.7 million in rental property inspection fees by violating the Fourth Amendment, the right to against unreasonable searches.

He argues the city’s inspection ordinance is too vague because a property owner can’t make out the inspection schedule.

The city changed its inspection schedule in July 2021 to coincide with the mandatory rental property registration, which is every three years.

“First of all, you just can’t do searches that aren’t based on any kind of probable cause, and one of the big problems we have here is that you have to have specific factual justification,” Toivonen said. “But, what happens is an inspector shows up at the property and demands to inspect and says sign a consent form. They fine you $255 for refusing to sign a consent form. So, you’re penalized for exercising your Fourth Amendment rights and the Supreme Court has said you cannot penalize citizens for exercising their Fourth Amendment rights.”

In one instance Toivonen cited in August, a tenant wrote a letter to the city concerned about an upcoming rental inspection with an administrative warrant.

The tenant saw no reason for the inspection to take place as, according to the letter, the tenant believed everything was in working order with no dangers to the tenant or visiting persons and cited a section of the ordinance that references protecting public health, safety and welfare of occupants.

According to city documents, a building inspector was locked out of inspecting the property in late March because the owner did not consent to the inspection. A search warrant was executed in early August charging the landlord $504 total for the lockout and the warrant.

District Court Judge Allison Bates found probable cause did exist and signed off on the search warrant.

In documents, Code Enforcement Officer David Batterson said the chosen property’s purpose for inspection was to ascertain the health, safety and welfare threatening violations existing on or within the property that may be contrary to the city code, and if they weren’t able to inspect the property, they wouldn’t be able to determine if conditions are unsafe as well as prevent future violations.

The purpose of this ordinance is to ensure all rental properties are registered and inspected, are safe and secure and sanitary living conditions exist.

So, what is the goal of challenging it?

“We would like to see some of the unnecessary and illegal fees refunded to the property owners,” Toivonen said. “But, more than anything else we want to actually hold the city of Jackson accountable so that they don’t continue inspecting just whenever they want to.”

The city says in a statement it, “remains confident that its non-owner occupied rental inspection program complies with the law and is designed with the best interests of both tenant and landlords in mind.”

Right now, Toivonen is in the beginning phases of this lawsuit as he is still waiting for class action certification.

For a full look at the official complaint and what else the plaintiffs are looking for you can browse this file below.