Ohio Real Estate Law / 01.14.2019

Another Local Point of Sale Ordinance in Ohio Held to be Unconstitutional

By Stephen Richman

absurdity(Criminal Penalties and Lack of Warrant Procedure Held to be Key Failings of Bedford, Ohio’s Former Point of Sale Ordinance)

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio has held in Pund v. City of Bedford, Case No.1:16-cv-1076 (N.D. Ohio Sept. 10, 2018) that a prior version of the point of sale inspection ordinance of the City of Bedford (suburb of Cleveland), as well as its rental inspection provisions, were unconstitutional, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

This is the second Ohio federal court to strike down ordinances of this type. Earlier this year, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio in Thompson v. City of Oakwood, Case No. 3:16-cv-169 (S.D. Ohio Feb 9, 2018) ruled that the point of sale ordinance of the City of Oakwood (suburb of Dayton) was unconstitutional.

Point of Sale Ordinances

While this type of ordinance can take many forms, the most common makes it unlawful to transfer ownership of any real estate, or lease to a new tenant, without having obtained a pre-sale inspection of the property under the applicable municipal code. The pre-sale inspection procedure usually requires the property owner to complete an application, schedule and appear for an inspection of the property with a code official, pay an inspection fee, and correct or otherwise address identified violations of the municipality’s fire, zoning, building, and/or property maintenance codes in order to obtain a certificate of occupancy authorizing the property’s sale or rental. The violation of pre-sale inspection requirements in this type of ordinance is usually punishable as a misdemeanor.

Municipalities usually defend their point of sale ordinances as valuable tools to increase the value of properties within their borders and ensure such properties and the residents occupying the same will be – and remain – safe. While these ordinances often contain a “criminal component,” municipalities rarely enforce the criminal penalties, but deem them necessary to cause compliance.

Notwithstanding the laudable intentions behind this type of point of sale ordinance, and the usual reluctance of municipalities to enforce the criminal penalties associated therewith, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio in Pund has followed the lead of the Southern District of Ohio (in Thompson) in holding point of sale ordinances with criminal penalties but without warrant procedures (such as those formerly enacted in Oakwood, Ohio and Bedford, Ohio) unconstitutional violations of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Bedford’s Former Point of Sale/Rental Inspection Ordinance

Bedford’s former Point of Sale Inspection Ordinance required homeowners to obtain a Certificate of Inspection (“Certificate”) before selling their home. A Certificate, valid for twelve months, was issued after a building official inspected “all structures or premises used for dwelling purposes and all secondary or accessory structures to determine whether such structures or premises conform[ed] to the provisions of th[e] code.” On inspection, the building official could enter the property at any reasonable time and inspect all areas of the home, including basements, bathrooms, electrical equipment, roofing, walks and driveways. Obtaining a Certificate required homeowners to apply for and consent to a warrantless inspection of the home and to pay an inspection fee ranging from $50 to $200. If the home did not pass inspection, either (i) the homeowner was required to perform repairs before the sale, or (ii) the buyer could deposit money in escrow to ensure payment for repairs to be made after the sale. Homeowners that violated the ordinance or refused an inspection were guilty of a misdemeanor and could be fined and imprisoned.
Similarly, Bedford’s rental inspection ordinance required landlords to schedule a warrantless inspection of their rental units every two years, or each time a new tenant was secured. A landlord was to obtain a Certificate in order to lease its property to a tenant. Landlords paid an inspection fee ranging from $20 to $50 per unit, and failure to comply could result in criminal penalties including fines and imprisonment.

It is important to note that approximately two months after the plaintiffs’ action was filed, the City of Bedford passed an ordinance that repealed the then existing pre-sale inspection ordinance and replaced it with a new one. The new ordinance adds an administrative warrant process for inspections and eliminates criminal penalties.

Background of Pund v. City of Bedford

The plaintiffs filed a legal action against the City of Bedford on behalf of Ken Pund (an area landlord who was forbidden from selling a home he owns to his daughter, in which she resides); John Diezic (a homeowner who was prevented from selling his home in Bedford due to minor cracks in his asphalt driveway); and (1) all other individuals and businesses that have been subjected to Bedford’s point of sale inspections between September 10, 2014 and January 30, 2017 (and paid the requisite inspection fees); and (2) all individuals and businesses that have been subjected to rental inspections between September 10, 2014 and February 14, 2017 (and paid the requisite rental inspection fees).

Basically, the plaintiffs in Pund sought: 1) an injunction against enforcement of the ordinances containing a warrantless inspection requirement; 2) a declaratory judgment that Bedford’s point of sale and rental inspection ordinances were unconstitutional (and that defendant City of Bedford has been/continues to be unjustly enriched as a result therefrom); and 3) restitution of the inspection fees plaintiffs paid pursuant to such ordinances.

Defendant’s Arguments

The City of Bedford put forth two basic arguments: 1) it was entitled to summary judgment on plaintiffs’ claims because its amended ordinance rendered such claims moot; and 2) it did not commit any constitutional violation because the plaintiffs consented to the inspections.

The Court’s Analysis in Pund V. City of Bedford

As with the court in Thompson, the court in Pund agreed with the defendant’s argument that the amended ordinance rendered the plaintiffs’ injunction claims moot. Citing precedent (prior cases on point), the court in Pund explained that “[W]hen the issues presented are no longer ‘live’ or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome,” a case (or case issue) becomes moot. And, since Bedford’s amended ordinance provided plaintiffs the injunctive relief they sought; the court in Pund declared the injunction portion of the plaintiffs’ claims no longer live, and therefore, moot. However, further citing precedent, the court clarified that “[W]here a claim for injunctive relief is moot, relief in the form of damages for a past constitutional violation is not affected.”  In other words, the Pund court held that plaintiffs retained a “backward-looking right to challenge the original law” in terms of their claims for a declaratory judgement and monetary damages relating to the prior ordinance. The City of Bedford tried to argue away plaintiffs’ right to a declaratory judgement (leaving simply a claim for monetary damages), however, the court in Pund disagreed, explaining that “Declaratory relief is part and parcel of [a] claim for monetary relief, which is live.”

To address the defendant’s argument that there was no constitutional violation, and accordingly no damages to be awarded (because plaintiffs consented to the search, and accordingly did not violate the Fourth Amendment), the court in Pund first summarized the general rule of (and quoted precedent with regard to) such amendment, before evaluating whether or not the general exception to the general rule (namely, that consented-to searches do not require a warrant) applied.

The court in Pund stated, as a general rule, that “The Fourth Amendment protects people in the privacy of their homes and against ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’;” and that searches of the home by the government “conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by a judge or a magistrate judge [e.g., via a warrant], are per se unreasonable subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.” As you may recall from high school government class, “plain view,” “search incident to a lawful arrest,” “exigent circumstances” and “voluntary consent” are some of the more common “warrant exceptions,” where a warrantless search or seizure would still be considered reasonable and not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment.

The defendant and its counsel in Pund were certainly aware of the “consent exception,” and in fact used it to justify their argument for summary judgement in their favor. The plaintiffs, however, countered that “voluntary consent to inspection, necessary for the City’s compliance with the Fourth Amendment, was impossible for any homeowner to give under the terms of the ordinance because the only alternative to consent was criminal penalty.”

In holding for the plaintiffs, the court in Pund  first recognized and agreed that voluntary consent to search is in fact a well-established exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, by simply stating that, “A homeowner’s voluntary consent to a search satisfies the government’s Fourth-Amendment obligations.” However, just as general rules of law always have exceptions, exceptions to exceptions are just as common, and ruled the day in Pund v City of Bedford. Quoting precedent (establishing an exception to the consent exception) by the court in Thompson and others before it, the court in Pund agreed with the plaintiffs and held that “consent given under threat of criminal penalty can never be deemed voluntary.”  Applying the facts to the law, the Pund court summarized that the Bedford inspection ordinances were unconstitutional because they required a homeowner to obtain a certificate in order to sell a home, which in turn allowed a building inspector to enter and search the property without a warrant, failure to comply was punishable as a misdemeanor of the first degree, and consent to the search could not be considered voluntary because of the criminal penalties which would ensue without such consent.

Would it have made a difference if the City of Bedford never enforced its inspection ordinances against any property owner?

While not discussed in the Pund case, the court in Thompson clearly provided that such facts would make no difference, by stating, “Here, even if Oakwood has never denied a certificate of occupancy or enforced the criminal provisions of its ordinance, the mere possibility of such action is enough to render any consent involuntary as a matter of law.”

Holding of Pund V. City of Bedford

Specifically, the court in Pund ruled as follows: “the City’s Point of Sale Inspection Ordinance and Rental Inspection Ordinance, as they existed on May 4, 2016, are unconstitutional both facially and as applied to Plaintiffs because they violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. [The Court] further declares that fees resulting from searches under those Ordinances resulted in unjust enrichment and that Plaintiffs are entitled to compensation.”

The case is still moving forward, however, on issues involved in determining class action participation and the amount of compensation due.

Moral of the Story

Most municipalities infuse their building and zoning codes with criminal penalties for violation of the same. In their defense, enforcing compliance with ordinances is often difficult without the threat of criminal penalties. Usually, such ordinances provide more “bark than bite” and are only enforced as a last resort.

However, as provided in Pund v. City of Bedford (and Thompson v. City of Oakwood), it seems that Ohio point of sale ordinances that call for criminal penalties (whether or not actually enforced) will most likely be held unconstitutional, at least where no administrative warrant procedure is provided. In other words, if it was not clear after Thompson, it is definitely advisable now for those municipalities that have not yet done so, to clearly review their point of sale/inspection ordinances and revise them accordingly.

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