Garfield has an ordinance that allows its construction official to make inspections to determine the condition of residential dwellings. (For those of you not familiar with the municipal law, Construction Official is a Latin term that means “an engineer who knows a politician.”)
The ordinance allows the construction official to enter all dwellings at any reasonable time. The owner of every dwelling must give the construction official free access to the premises. An owner who fails to allow the inspection faces fines, and even incarceration.
Ellen H. owns a building in Garfield. On three occasions, a construction official demanded entry. Ellen had the nerve to request that the official obtain a search warrant first. Naturally, she was charged with violating the ordinance. The Garfield municipal court judge convicted her. A Superior Court judge upheld the conviction on appeal.
Ellen did not give up. She appealed to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court. A three-judge panel reversed her conviction. The panel ruled that the city indeed needed a warrant to enter private premises. The only exceptions would be where an emergency or public health danger existed, where the owner gave consent, or where the inspection pertained to a highly regulated business, like liquor stores or race tracks.
It’s nice to know that we still have some privacy rights. But it’s a little scary that two lower court judges were willing to let the government trash the Constitution.