See v. City of Seattle
The ruling established an administrative warrant system to conduct health and safety inspections at private business properties not open to the public. To avoid violating the Fourth Amendment, a city must demonstrate reasonableness by submitting its formal procedures for conducting such inspections to a magistrate. Since the See ruling, the Court identified several exceptions not requiring warrants including inspections of liquor and firearms businesses, aerial surveillance, search of students in public schools, and airline security screenings.
Fundamental protection of an individual's right to privacy is provided by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment established the `right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.' The amendment further stipulates that warrants may only be issued when supported by `probable cause, supported by Oath and affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.' The Fourth Amendment grew directly from experiences with British authorities in the American colonies in the 1700s.
With rapid population growth and urban expansion following World War II, governmental regulation of businesses grew as well. Assuring compliance with city health and safety standards required various means to inspect on a regular basis. Such inspections commonly focused on the condition of electrical wiring, rodent infestation, plumbing, trash accumulation, zoning ordinances, fire codes, and job safety. The Supreme Court had not addressed the application of Fourth Amendment protections to such `administrative' inspections until 1959. The Court held in Frank v. Maryland (1959) that city health officials did not need warrants to inspect private dwellings even when owners opposed entry. The Court distinguished between administrative needs to obtain entry to private properties and criminal investigatory needs. The inspections required less rigorous protection of the individual's privacy and were not held to traditional Fourth Amendment standards.
Accordingly, the city of Seattle Fire Department contacted See regarding a routine city-wide inspection to assess compliance with Seattle fire codes. See would not allow the city access to his locked commercial warehouse without a warrant showing probable cause that a violation was expected. The city arrested See for violating the Seattle Fire Code. See argued in his trial that the warrantless inspection violated his rights under the Fourth and Fourteen Amendments. The city argued that such administrative searches were automatically restricted by the ordinance and regulations directing the inspection. See, who was convicted of the violation and fined $100, appealed the conviction to the Washington State Supreme Court which upheld the lower court's decision. The U.S. Supreme Court issued certiorari to hear this case concurrently with a similar challenge, Camara v. Municipal Court (1967), involving an inspection of a private residence.