A federal court has ruled in favor of the city of Schenectady over the city’s rental inspection law.
A Schenectady landlord sued the city claiming the city ordinance allows for warrantless inspections of rental properties. On Wednesday, a U.S. District Court judge declared that the inspections are constitutional.
Andrew Wisoff, who owns several two-family houses in the city, said the warrantless search of his properties violates the state and the U.S. constitutions.
“Basically he was saying we were illegally requiring searches of people’s houses in order to rent their property,” said City Attorney Carl Falotico. “The court said we’re not doing that.”
According to city code, buildings containing two or more rental units must be inspected by the building inspector to receive a valid rental certificate.
During regular business hours or in an emergency, the building inspector can enter the building and rental units for inspection. If access is refused, the building inspector can apply for a search warrant or court order.
“The ordinance does not make it unlawful to refuse consent for a search of a rental unit; it simply makes it unlawful to rent an apartment without first obtaining a rental certificate,” U.S. District Judge Mae D’Agostino said. “Refusing consent for a warrantless inspection of the rental unit simply requires the code enforcement officer to obtain a search warrant.”
In 2012, state Supreme Court Justice Vito Caruso ruled that the city ordinance was constitutional but that warrants are necessary if the landlord refuses.
Wisoff was facing charges of severe code violations, and city attorneys successfully argued inspectors needed to protect his tenants. Also, in 2008 Wisoff had nine properties on American Tax Funding’s delinquent tax list.
In 2013, another Schenectady landlord, Mohammed Hafez, challenged the city’s rental inspection law, saying city officials had to obtain a warrant to inspect his units.
“This has been going on for a couple of years now,” Falotico said. “[Wisoff] filed in federal court and state court, and the state court sided with us. Then the federal judge wanted the state court’s decision before rendering this ruling.”
Chris Morris, the director of Schenectady Landlords Influencing Change, said landlords do not have to agree to a warrantless search and that the city’s Building Department is “working very hard.”
“The law is the law, and the city dictates what it wants to do and you have to abide,” she said. “But you don’t have to let somebody in and you can tell them that. I get upset with people who let things go and can’t afford repairs.”
Morris said she isn’t happy with the $50 fee to schedule an inspection for a rental certificate. She said the inspection fees add up when people move out and new tenants move in.
“The fee is $50 and it used to be $25,” she said. “We were looking to have that brought down. You have to pay every time you get a new tenant.”