Posted by: Patricia Salkin | February 27, 2012

CT Supreme Court Explains Fourth Amendment Rights in Zoning Violation Searches

The plaintiffs, the town and specifically the town’s zoning enforcement officer, are sued defendant homeowners seeking to inspect defendant’s property for possible zoning violations.  The town zoning enforcement officer received an email requesting him to inspect the defendant’s property for unregistered motor vehicles and junk on defendant’s land.  The officer went to defendants’ residence, however, defendants refused to allow an inspection.  The zoning enforcement officer returned a second time to inspect, but defendants had constructed a fence and again would not allow an inspection.  The town brought an action seeking a temporary injunction, preventing the defendants from refusing to allow an inspection.  

The trial court granted plaintiff’s temporary injunction, authorizing the enforcement officer to inspect the defendant’s property for zoning violations.  The trial court found that state law required zoning enforcement officers to inspect property as a public service.  The trial court, thus, granted the injunction based on the public interests of the government. 

The defendants appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court arguing that the inspection constitutes a violation of their fourth amendment rights against an improper search.  The court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that administrative searches must comply with the fourth amendment.  Thus, any search by an administrative agency must meet the fourth amendment’s “reasonable” requirement.  The court examined Supreme Court precedent in determining reasonableness and said they must “balance the need to search against the invasion which the search entails.”  

First, the court explained, the type of search should be examined.  If it is a routine inspection of an entire area, the inspection is not personal, and therefore, allowable.  Here, the inspection was not routine or random, it was personal.  Second, the court said it must consider the nature of the premise; explaining that a commercial or closely regulated business is more reasonably searched than one’s residential property.  Here, the property was a homeowner’s residential property.  Finally, the court explained, it must balance individual’s privacy interests against the municipality’s interest in searching for an administrative violation.  Here, the court focused on the fact that the search was targeted to one individual property.  Thus, the court found that the town’s interest in inspecting zoning violations is not sufficient to outweigh the defendants’ privacy protections under the fourth amendment.  The court explained that although it has established a high burden for the government to meet, since most homeowners consent to zoning inspections they have placed no undue burden on the government.  In ultimately reversing the trial court’s grant of the temporary injunction, the court reiterated that a “targeted administrative search demands a more particularized showing of probable cause” including a showing of facts “sufficient to cause a reasonable person to believe” there are zoning violations.”  

Town of Bozrah v. Chmurynski, 2012 WL 371893 (Conn. 02/14/2012) 

The opinion can be accessed at: http://www.jud.ct.gov/external/supapp/Cases/AROcr/CR303/303CR26.pdf


Responses

  1. I have just forwarded this to my attorney. We are struggling with a similar case blown way out of proportion, stemming from a Maine CEO intruding w/o permission in violation of the 4th and then fabricating unsupportable claims that range from preposterous to ridiculous. If there is/are any out there familiar weith Maine Law in this area, please contact me at

    THBaldwin3@aol.com

    It has become quite a case.

  2. I read the opinion and I am very conflicted on the outcome. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the Fourth Amendment, but it’s hard to understand the court’s point of view. This ruling eviscerates the town’s ability to enforce its zoning laws because the town has no recourse unless the property owner assents to an inspection of their property. Even if the town is alerted to possible infractions, the town cannot inspect the offending homeowner’s property without permission. Essentially, there is no means of enforcement short of taking the drastic step of police action against the property owner.

    It is my understanding that in Connecticut towns are free to regulate zoning within the municipality. This includes the lot sizes, height, and bulk of structures. Additionally, the towns are charged with regulating the allowable uses—residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, etc.—on a particular parcel. By invalidating the ordinances that allow the town to enforce its zoning regulations, the Supreme Court of Connecticut is essentially violating the separation of powers doctrine and usurping the town’s power to regulate its own land use. I understand the need for the courts to protect the privacy interests of a homeowner, but where is the deference to the municipality?

    In its opinion, the court notes that the town does not have probable cause to search the property because, “Traditionally, probable cause requires some showing of individualized suspicion beyond mere common rumor or report, suspicion, or even strong reason to suspect,” and that level of suspicion is absent in this case. I beg to differ. The facts indicate that a town selectman requested that the town zoning officials inspect the property for “unregistered motor vehicles and other junk.” It seems clear that this parcel was in disrepair and was, at least potentially, a health hazard. Why isn’t this enough to empower the town zoning official to perform a brief inspection of the property? If the facts were changed slightly—for instance, if the selectman reported his suspicion that the property owners were operating a commercial business out of their home in violation of the zoning laws or were growing marijuana in their yard—even the Connecticut Supreme Court would be hard pressed to argue that probable cause did not exist. Is the concern that the presence of “unregistered motor vehicles and other junk” is not a significant enough defect to warrant the town’s intervention and enforcement of its zoning laws? If so, why are the zoning laws even on the books?

    Although I agree that members of the public should be free from illegal search and seizure and that the probable cause standard should not be abused, this ruling prevents the zoning board from fulfilling its obligation to the community. Zoning laws are created to benefit the public. Zoning laws do not serve solely aesthetic purposes; they are vital to addressing economic, environmental, and public health concerns. To hold that a landowner who is in violation of the zoning ordinances may avoid enforcement of these ordinances simply by denying the zoning officials an opportunity to inspect the property is to let the inmates run the asylum. Should every citizen who surrounds the “curtilage” of his home with a fence be immune from zoning restrictions? Does this imaginary boundary preclude the municipality from acting on the behalf of the public to “stabilize property values” and “promote the general welfare?” What if there was a potential health risk? It is not difficult to imagine a scenario where a discarded oil tank or leaking, rusted-out car could cause environmental damage, contaminate a neighbor’s well water, or worse.

    The Connecticut Supreme Court missed the point in this case. The zoning official just wanted to inspect the yard and make sure everything was copacetic. This wasn’t a Terry stop. The town wasn’t asking to rummage through the defendant’s medicine cabinet or look behind closed doors. The town was simply trying to investigate (God forbid!) a potential violation of the zoning ordinances. This is the town’s statutorily given right. (See Conn. Gen. Stat. § 8-12.) The town is empowered to enact—and enforce—zoning laws that protect the health and well being of the municipality. That the Connecticut Supreme Court injected itself into the conversation was a grave mistake.

  3. Why didn’t the town get an inspection warrant – either from the court or an administrative warrant or subpoena?

    Here, the inspector testified that that was what the city I live in did although no such subpoena was ever produced that I saw anyway.

    Except for one short sentence in the final order, nothing at all was ever

    Oh, I forgot to mention, the city claimed that due to the subpoena it had been proper for the inspectors to break into my house without previously requesting entry, without any prior notice to me they were going to do that, without any notice to me that it had broken in or that it had then boarded over every opening on the house so that I couldn’t get back in to live there.

    and so that the inspector could apparently testify (somewhere unknown to me) before the hearing on the merits was held.

    The city had offered to buy the property but I didn’t want to sell. It then claimed I had abandoned the property and the definition of abandoned under the statute they used meant that a building had remained vacant and in violation of the housing code for six consecutive months.

    Without preventing me from living there and without first claiming at the hearing that my in progress replacing of the bathtub with a shower unit they discovered upon “inspection” was a violation, the city had nothing!

    In the 22 years that I owned the property the city had never issued so much as a notice concerning that house. (I have a plumbing license and almost 40 years experience.)

    I told the judge that the city had not provided me with any information at all about what it had done and therefore there was no way that I could defend against that. The judge did not say one word.

    I requested a continuance and an order compeling the city to provide me with that information. The judge did not rule on the motion and hearing was held.
    The city submitted copies of photographs of the unfinished bathroom and its employee/witness lied about everything. The city was awarded title to the property.
    I had to attempt to represent myself (again) because the city had previously blacklisted me in all of the state since after they obstructed representation before and took other property of mine (without any compensation) I filed a disability complaint pursuant to the FHAA with HUD and the city didn’t like that.

    The city has taken – stolen – six properties from me by the use of what seems to me to be an unconstitutional statute, collusion, misconduct otherwise and on and on against an old, sick handicapped man.


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