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ACLU files class-action lawsuit challenging Clarksville’s new rental inspection program

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The ACLU has filed a class action lawsuit arguing Clarksville's new residential rental inspection program violates renters' Fourth Amendment rights.

A recently filed class action lawsuit challenges Clarksville’s new residential rental inspection program, alleging it violates renters’ constitutional rights.

The ACLU recently filed a class action lawsuit in federal court on behalf of a Clarksville resident, alleging the town’s new rental inspection program violates his and other renters’ Fourth Amendment rights.

The Clarksville Town Council approved an ordinance creating the program last spring, with implementation set to start early this year. It requires all owners to register each residential rental unit annually to be inspected every three years by either the Clarksville Building Commissioner's office or a third party, depending on the rental unit type.

According to the town’s website, the inspections include checking electrical systems, plumbing, smoke detectors and overall building structure to make sure those are up to code.

The town ordinance also requires owners to immediately notify the Building Commissioner’s office of any hazardous conditions including fire, flood, sewage backup or interruption of electrical or water service for four or more hours.

The ordinance references Indiana code, which allows for governments to create rental inspection programs.

“This program is going to be a great tool which we can use in service of the town’s rental population,” Building Commissioner Rick Barr said in a news release in fall. “We need to make sure these properties are maintained for safety reasons.”

It’s not clear if the town has performed any inspections yet. But an attorney with the ACLU representing renter Gary Carpenter argued in the recent lawsuit that to do so without first getting a warrant from a court or judicial order would violate renters’ Fourth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment protects against the government conducting searches and seizures of homes, schools, cars or individuals that are deemed unreasonable according to the law.

“Under the Ordinance, Mr. Carpenter’s home — and hundreds or thousands like it in the town — is subject to mandatory inspection by Town officials at least once every three years, and more often if a re-inspection is necessary or if the town had reason to believe or receives a complaint that his home does not comply with all applicable code requirements,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says Carpenter does not consent to such a search, and that, “Without a warrant or some other judicial or quasi-judicial order, there is no legal justification for the town’s entry into or inspection of his home or of the homes of any other renter in the Town.”

It states Carpenter lives in a home that, according to the new program, would require inspection by town staff rather than a third party.

The town ordinance creating the program also includes that inspections may be done more often than every three years, if the enforcement authority has reason to believe there is noncompliance with applicable codes or receives a complaint stating so.

The lawsuit asks the court to block the town from enforcing the section of the ordinance that requires “nonconsensual entry into and inspection of rental housing” without regard to first getting a warrant or judicial order.

Online court records do not yet show a response to the lawsuit by the Town of Clarksville.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau population estimates, as of July 1, 2021, there were just over 22,000 residents in Clarksville, with the owner-occupied housing rate between 2017 to 2021 at just over 61%.

Coverage of Southern Indiana is funded, in part, by Samtec, Inc. and the Hazel & Walter T. Bales Foundation.

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Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.