A lawsuit filed in circuit court is challenging Little Rock's rental inspection code, calling the mandatory inspection of rental units every two years an "unlawful search."
Rental house owner Robert Moore filed suit against the city and some of its employees at the beginning of this month and is seeking class action status.
Moore claims the city's inspections constitute unlawful searches, and neither property owners nor tenants are told by city inspectors that they have the right to refuse the inspection.
"During these inspections, city officials search for evidence that can result in criminal charges, a declaration the property is a nuisance, or condemnation of the property," the lawsuit says.
The city's code states that if a person refuses consent to these searches, this refusal "is deemed to constitute an imminent threat to the public health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Little Rock and may lead to a declaration by the city that the rental housing unit is a public nuisance."
Buildings that are declared a nuisance are sometimes condemned, boarded up or have the utilities stripped.
Moore said in his lawsuit that he has been approached numerous times for his rental property to be inspected and that he has refused. The lawsuit says the tenants have a constitutional right to privacy. The city threatened Moore with loss of his property and criminal charges as a consequence of his refusal, he said.
Named as defendants are the city, Operations Supervisor Greg Massanelli, Code Enforcement Division Manager Ed Garland, Code Officer Morris Hunter and unknown code officers, currently listed as John Does.
Moore's attorney, Chris Corbitt, said in the complaint that courts addressing similar ordinances in other cities have found them unconstitutional under federal standards.
He points to Baker vs. City of Portsmouth, Ohio, in which a judge granted summary judgment for the property owner in 2015, and another case a year later against the city of Flint, Mich., where a property owner was granted a preliminary injunction.
Corbitt said the class of property owners who have been subjected to Little Rock's inspections will likely exceed 1,000.
Questions to be determined by the court include whether the inspections constitute unlawful searches, whether the inspection code violates due process, whether the code fails to provide adequate notice of the right to refuse, whether IT provides for excessive fines in violation of the state constitution, whether property owners are entitled to a refund of those fines, and whether they are entitled to compensation.
"The Rental Inspection Code, and ordinances comprising that code, are unconstitutional on their face," the complaint says.
Moore is seeking a jury trial. The complaint was filed Nov. 3, and the city has yet to respond.
In Arkansas, renters have few rights under state law. It's the only state where landlords do not have to provide a habitable dwelling. Landlords also are not required to make repairs unless it is stated in the lease agreement. And renters cannot withhold rent for any reason.
Corbitt represented Moore in 2016 in a lawsuit against Moore's tenants alleging failure to pay rent. The judge ruled in his favor.
Within days of filing the rental code lawsuit, Corbitt had filed another suit against Little Rock seeking class action status over the city's false-alarm fees. The fees are charged to business and property owners after a certain number of times that alarms go off when there is no emergency, causing firetrucks to report to the scene.
At the same time Corbitt also filed a class action suit against the city of North Little Rock, claiming its city-owned electric utility is a monopoly illegal under Arkansas law.
Metro on 11/24/2017
Print Headline: Suit calls LR rental checks unlawful