Administrative Search

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Safety inspections of dwellings by government officials, unlike police searches, are conducted to correct hazardous conditions rather than to secure evidence. Initially, therefore, the Supreme Court regarded such inspection as merely touching interests that were peripheral to the fourth amendment; the right of privacy of the householder must give way, even in the absence of a search warrant, to the interest in preserving a safe urban environment. Frank v. Maryland (1959) paradoxically granted greater protection under the Fourth Amendment to suspected criminals than to law-abiding citizens.

Later, the Court reversed itself in camara v. municipal court (1967), holding that the amendment was designed "to safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions by government officials," regardless of their purpose. However, because inspections would be crippled if the standard of proof needed for a warrant were the same as that required in a criminal case, the traditional probable cause standard was discarded in favor of a flexible test based on the condition of the area and the time elapsed since the last inspection, rather than specific knowledge of the condition of the particular dwelling. After wyman v. james (1971) welfare benefits for support of a dependent child may be made conditional upon periodic visits to the home by a caseworker; a warrant is not required for such a visit.

The requirement of a warrant for inspections generally applies to business premises, as the Court held in See v. City of Seattle (1967). But in Donovan v. Dewey (1981) the Court held that coal mines, establishments dealing in guns and liquor, and other commercial properties that are comprehensively regulated by government may be inspected without a warrant, because an owner is obviously aware that his property will be subject to inspection.

Jacob W. Landynski


Lafave, Wayne R. 1967 Administrative Searches and the Fourth Amendment: The Camara and See Cases. Supreme Court Review 1967:2–38.

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