A stranger in your backyard would likely raise your suspicion. However, if that stranger was driving a county or city-owned vehicle and carrying a clipboard, you might dismiss that person as having the right to be there on official business. That is likely not the case, and if that person is a code enforcement officer, they almost certainly do not have the right to be there without either a warrant or your permission. While that does not mean you should forcefully remove a county or city official from your property, it does mean you may have a valid complaint against your local government for violating your rights.
Who are Code Enforcement Officers?
Code enforcement officers are agents authorized by the county or another municipality to ensure that members of the community, their homes, and places of business are in compliance with various local codes. These officers are authorized to issue citations and notices to appear in county court when they believe a person or other entity has committed a civil infraction in violation of a code or ordinance enacted by the county or the city.
Unreasonable Property Searches in Florida
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and s. 12, Art. 1 of the Florida Constitution protects commercial and private property from unreasonable searches. When discussions of the fourth amendment arise, they usually focus on the excessive use of force or unreasonable searches and seizures of one’s property by law enforcement officers; however, the same protections from unreasonable searches and seizures hold true for code enforcement officers.
There is no express or implied authority for a warrantless search by a code enforcement officer. Accordingly, an inspection of private property by a code enforcement officer that is without the consent of the owner, operator, or occupant or without the issuance of an administrative search warrant is an unreasonable search and a violation of one’s constitutional rights.
Exceptions to Inspection Warrants
There are two exceptions to the requirement for an administrative inspection warrant or consent. First is the issuance of an inspection warrant. An inspection warrant, not to be confused with an administrative search warrant, allows a state or local official, such as a code enforcement officer, to inspect any building, place, or structure for compliance with applicable fire, safety, plumbing, electrical, health, minimum housing, and zoning standards. Per Florida Statute, owner-occupied family residences are exempt from inspection warrants.
The second and more applicable exception is that a code enforcement officer does not need permission or an administrative search warrant to inspect property for code compliance for the areas that can be seen from public property, such as streets.
It is essential to know and understand your rights.
About the Authors
Attorney Lenore T. Brakefield is partner at Woodward, Pires & Lombardo, P.A. (WPL) in Naples and Marco Island, Florida. She is a Naples native and graduated cum laude from the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Lenore focuses her law practice on civil and commercial litigation, including construction litigation matters. She also handles local government law, code enforcement violations, community association law, real estate law, and contract and transactional matters. Additionally, Lenore is a Certified Financial Litigator by the American Academy for Certified Financial Litigators.
Lenore acknowledges WPL summer associate Logan Wardlow for his contribution to this article. Logan attends The University of Mississippi School of Law in Oxford, Mississippi. He graduated with honors from the University of West Florida with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, General Business Major, and a Management and Legal Studies Double Minor.