387 U.S. 523 (1967), 92, Camara v. Municipal Court of the City and County of San Francisco

Docket Nº:No. 92
Citation:387 U.S. 523, 87 S.Ct. 1727, 18 L.Ed.2d 930
Party Name:Camara v. Municipal Court of the City and County of San Francisco
Case Date:June 05, 1967
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 523

387 U.S. 523 (1967)

87 S.Ct. 1727, 18 L.Ed.2d 930



Municipal Court of the City and County of San Francisco

No. 92

United States Supreme Court

June 5, 1967

Argued February 15, 1967




Appellant was charged with violating the San Francisco Housing Code for refusing, after three efforts by city housing inspectors to secure his consent, to allow a warrantless inspection of the ground-floor quarters which he leased and residential use of which allegedly violated the apartment building's occupancy permit. Claiming the inspection ordinance unconstitutional for failure to require a warrant for inspections, appellant while awaiting trial, sued in a State Superior Court for a writ of prohibition, which the court denied. Relying on Frank v. Maryland, 359 U.S. 360, and similar cases, the District Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that the ordinance did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The State Supreme Court denied a petition for hearing.


1. The Fourth Amendment bars prosecution of a person who has refused to permit a warrantless code enforcement inspection of his personal residence. Frank v. Maryland, supra, pro tanto overruled. Pp. 528-534.

(a) The basic purpose of the Fourth Amendment, which is enforceable against the States through the Fourteenth, through its prohibition of "unreasonable" searches and seizures is to safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions by governmental officials. P. 528.

(b) With certain carefully defined exceptions, an unconsented warrantless search of private property is "unreasonable." Pp. 528-529.

(c) Contrary to the assumption of Frank v. Maryland, supra, Fourth Amendment interests are not merely "peripheral" where municipal fire, health, and housing inspection programs are involved whose purpose is to determine the existence of physical conditions not complying with local ordinances. Those programs, moreover, are enforceable by criminal process, as is refusal to allow an inspection. Pp. 529-531.

(d) Warrantless administrative searches cannot be justified on the grounds that they make minimal demands on occupants;

Page 524

that warrant in such cases are unfeasible; or that area inspection programs could not function under reasonable search warrant requirements. Pp. 531-533.

2. Probable cause upon the basis of which warrants are to be issued for area code enforcement inspections is not dependent on the inspector's belief that a particular dwelling violates the code, but on the reasonableness of the enforcement agency's appraisal of conditions in the area as a whole. The standards to guide the magistrate in the issuance of such search warrants will necessarily vary with the municipal program being enforced. Pp. 534-539.

3. Search warrants which are required in nonemergency situations should normally be sought only after entry is refused. Pp. 539-540.

4. In the nonemergency situation here, appellant had a right to insist that the inspectors obtain a search warrant. P. 540.

237 Cal.App.2d 128, 46 Cal.Rptr. 585, vacated and remanded.

Page 525

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Frank v. Maryland, 359 U.S. 360, this Court upheld, by a five-to-four vote, a state court conviction of a homeowner who refused to permit a municipal health inspector to enter and inspect his premises without a search warrant. In Eaton v. Price, 364 U.S. 263, a similar conviction was affirmed by an equally divided Court. Since [87 S.Ct. 1729] those closely divided decisions, more intensive efforts at all levels of government to contain and eliminate urban blight have led to increasing use of such inspection techniques, while numerous decisions of this Court have more fully defined the Fourth Amendment's effect on state and municipal action. E.g., Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643; Ker v. California, 374 U.S. 23. In view of the growing nationwide importance of the problem, we noted probable jurisdiction in this case and in See v. City of Seattle, post, p. 541, to reexamine whether administrative inspection programs, as presently authorized and conducted, violate Fourth Amendment rights as those rights are enforced against the States through the Fourteenth Amendment. 385 U.S. 808.

Appellant brought this action in a California Superior Court alleging that he was awaiting trial on a criminal charge of violating the San Francisco Housing Code by refusing to permit a warrantless inspection of his residence, and that a writ of prohibition should issue to the criminal court because the ordinance authorizing such inspections is unconstitutional on its face. The Superior Court denied the writ, the District Court of Appeal affirmed, and the Supreme Court of California denied a petition for hearing. Appellant properly raised and had considered by the California courts the federal constitutional questions he now presents to this Court.

Though there were no judicial findings of fact in this prohibition proceeding, we shall set forth the parties' factual allegations. On November 6, 1963, an inspector

Page 526

of the Division of Housing Inspection of the San Francisco Department of Public Health entered an apartment building to make a routine annual inspection for possible violations of the city's Housing Code.1 The building's manager informed the inspector that appellant, lessee of the ground floor, was using the rear of his leasehold as a personal residence. Claiming that the building's occupancy permit did not allow residential use of the ground floor, the inspector confronted appellant and demanded that he permit an inspection of the premises. Appellant refused to allow the inspection because the inspector lacked a search warrant.

The inspector returned on November 8, again without a warrant, and appellant again refused to allow an inspection. A citation was then mailed ordering appellant to appear at the district attorney's office. When appellant failed to appear, two inspectors returned to his apartment on November 22. They informed appellant that he was required by law to permit an inspection under § 503 of the Housing Code:

Sec. 503 RIGHT TO ENTER BUILDING. Authorized employees of the City departments or City agencies, so far as may be necessary for the performance of their duties, shall, upon presentation of proper credentials, have the right to enter, at reasonable times, any building, structure, or premises in the City to perform any duty imposed upon them by the Municipal Code.

Page 527

Appellant nevertheless refused the inspectors access to his apartment without a search warrant. Thereafter, a complaint was filed charging him with refusing [87 S.Ct. 1730] to permit a lawful inspection in violation of § 507 of the Code.2 Appellant was arrested on December 2 and released on bail. When his demurrer to the criminal complaint was denied, appellant filed this petition for a writ of prohibition.

Appellant has argued throughout this litigation that § 503 is contrary to the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments in that it authorizes municipal officials to enter a private dwelling without a search warrant and without probable cause to believe that a violation of the Housing Code exists therein. Consequently, appellant contends, he may not be prosecuted under § 507 for refusing to permit an inspection unconstitutionally authorized by § 503. Relying on Frank v. Maryland, Eaton v. Price, and decisions in other States,3 the District

Page 528

Court of Appeal held that § 503 does not violate Fourth Amendment rights because it

is part of a regulatory scheme which is essentially civil, rather than criminal in nature, inasmuch as that section creates a right of inspection which is limited in scope and may not be exercised under unreasonable conditions.

Having concluded that Frank v. Maryland, to the extent that it sanctioned such warrantless inspections, must be overruled, we reverse.


The Fourth Amendment provides that,

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The basic purpose of this Amendment, as recognized in countless decisions of this Court, is to safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions by governmental officials. The Fourth Amendment thus gives concrete expression to a right of the people which "is basic to a free society." Wolf v. Colorado, 338 U.S. 25, 27. As such, the Fourth Amendment is enforceable against the States through the Fourteenth Amendment. Ker v. California, 374 U.S. 23, 30.

Though there has been general agreement as to the fundamental purpose of the Fourth Amendment, translation of the abstract prohibition against "unreasonable searches and seizures" into workable guidelines for the decision of particular cases is a difficult task which has for many years divided the members of this Court. Nevertheless, one governing principle, justified by history [87 S.Ct. 1731] and by current experience, has consistently been followed: except in certain carefully defined classes of cases, a search of private property without proper consent

Page 529

is "unreasonable" unless it has been authorized by a valid search warrant. See, e.g., Stoner v. California, 376 U.S. 483; United States v. Jeffers, 342 U.S. 48; McDonald v. United States, 335 U.S. 451; Agnello v. United States, 269 U.S. 20. As the Court explained in Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10, 14:

The right of officers to thrust themselves into a home is also a grave concern not only to the individual, but to a society, which chooses to dwell in reasonable security and freedom from...

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