Lawsuit Against City Officials Allege Vacant Property Registry Violates Fourth Amendment
March 19, 2018
SAGINAW, MI — An attorney has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against two Saginaw city officials, alleging that an ordinance violates the Fourth Amendment rights of property owners.
Phillip Ellison, a Hemlock-based attorney, file a lawsuit on March 14 in U.S. District Court naming the city’s Chief Inspector John Stemple and Clerk Janet Santos.
The lawsuit alleges that language at the bottom of an application to register unoccupied or vacant properties strips property owners of their protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by forcing them to sign them away in order to be compliant with the city law.
The particular part of the language reads:
“I hereby agree that in the event my property becomes dangerous as defined by the City of Saginaw Dangerous Housing Code, I give permission for the City, its agents, employees, or representatives, to enter and board the premises or do whatever necessary to make the property secure and safe.”
Ellison said that that paragraph makes the application illegal, for one, because that language is not a part of the ordinance and secondly, because it gives government officials the right to enter someone’s property without a warrant.
“Law presumes that the government can’t just enter your property,” Ellison said.
According to Ellison, a government official would have to file a request for an administrative warrant by presenting an affidavit and evidence to a judge to obtain a warrant.
“The judge might not be convinced and may want to hear from the owner before making a decision,” Ellison said. “They can’t just walk in and start boarding it up.”
The lawsuit arose because James Benjamin, trustee of the Rebekah C. Benjamin Trust and client of Ellison, was ticketed by the city for two vacant or unoccupied properties he failed to register.
Ellison said his client does not have a problem registering the properties but does have a problem signing over his Fourth Amendment rights.
“If the city changes it, we can resolve this without going to court,” Ellison said.
The class-action suit will represent anyone who could be, or has been, signing these applications, Ellison said.
“We want to make sure that they don’t do this to anyone else,” Ellison said.
No money is being sought other than legal fees, Ellison said.
Ellison said Santos and Stemple were named in the complaint because it’s the city clerk’s responsibility to have the application available and the inspector’s job to enforce it.
“She’s requiring everyone to use it,” he said. “Stemple would authorize inspections and searches.”
Stemple and Santos are being represented by O’Neill, Wallace, & Doyle, of Saginaw Township.
Stemple declined to comment on pending litigation. Santos could not be reached for comment.