Camara v. Municipal Court of the City and County of San Francisco, 387 U.S. 523 (1967)

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The Fourth Amendment’s requirement that the government obtain a warrant before any search or seizure of private property is well established for criminal investigations. Whether a warrant was required when the government conducts a health and safety inspection, an administrative investigation, however, was not established until Camara v. Municipal Court of the City and County of San Francisco.

In 1963, a San Francisco public health inspector attempted to search the ground floor of an apartment building after learning that the lessee might be violating the building’s occupancy permit. The inspector did not have a warrant, and the lessee refused to consent on three separate occasions. The lessee’s refusal to allow the inspection resulted in the lessee’s criminal prosecution under San Francisco’s housing codes.

The Supreme Court held that administrative health and safety inspections conducted without a search warrant violated the Fourth Amendment. The Court reasoned that a search of private property without proper consent is unreasonable, except in narrowly defined situations, unless it has been authorized by a valid search warrant. Even if the inspections are not conducted to discover criminal activity, administrative inspections made pursuant to fire, health, and housing codes threaten interests of the property owner protected by the Fourth Amendment.

Although the Court held that a warrant is required to conduct administrative searches absent consent, the Court stated that the warrant for such a search need not be based on suspicion that any particular dwelling is in violation of health and safety codes. Rather, it is reasonable for the government to conduct periodic inspections of an entire area to protect the public’s health and safety. Moreover, the Court’s holding does not prevent prompt inspections of dwellings without a warrant in emergency situations.


References and Further Reading

  • Sunby, Scott E., A Return to Fourth Amendment Basics: Undoing the Mischief of Camara and Terry, University of Minnesota Law Review 72 (1988): 383–447

Cases and Statutes Cited

See also Administrative Searches and Seizures; Probable Cause; Search (General Definition); Search Warrants; Warrantless Searches