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See v. City of Seattle

Protection From Administrative Searches

The Court found in favor of See by a 6-3 vote. Justice White, writing on behalf of the majority, wrote that the Court saw no reason to distinguish between the need for administrative entry for enforcement of commercial property standards and police entry. Both need Fourth Amendment safeguards. Similarly, the Court found in Camara that inspection of a private dwelling also required a warrant. These two decisions, announced on the same day by the Court, reversed the earlier Frank decision.

In See, White found that the "businessman, like the occupant of a residence, has a constitutional right to go about his business free from unreasonable official entries upon his private commercial property." The Court disagreed with Seattle by finding that the ordinance actually provided few restrictions leaving much discretion to the inspectors on how to conduct their searches. White concluded "that warrants are a necessary and a tolerable limitation on the right to enter upon and inspect commercial premises. Such warrants should be limited in scope, well defined in purpose, and specifically targeted to what is to be inspected. The need for individual privacy must be weighed against the public need for effective enforcement of the regulation." White did recognize that "surprise may often be a crucial aspect of routine inspections of business establishments." Therefore, warrants may be reasonably obtained in some situations prior to initially approaching the owner of the business. As for See, he could "not be prosecuted for exercising his constitutional right to insist that the fire inspector obtain a warrant authorizing entry" to his locked warehouse.

Justice Clark, joined in dissent by Justices Harlan and Stewart, favored the previous Frank decision. Inspection of private properties for purposes of protecting public health and safety should not be hampered by the same "blanket requirement of the safeguards necessary for a search of evidence of criminal acts." Clark feared that reversing Frank would greatly cripple enforcement of city ordinances throughout the country "jeopardizing . . . the health, welfare, and safety of literally millions of people." Worst of all, wrote Clark, the local government must now show probable cause for wishing to inspect an establishment under this "newfangled" warrant system. Enforcement of health and safety codes should automatically satisfy the Fourth Amendment's test of reasonableness, not necessitating individual property justifications. Like many other inspections publicly accepted over the previous 150 years of enforcing such standards, nothing in this case suggested to Clark "that the inspection was unauthorized, unreasonable, for any improper purpose, or designed as a basis for a criminal prosecution; nor is there any indication of any discriminatory, arbitrary, or capricious action." The anticipated lack of individual uniqueness for such administrative warrants, unlike in criminal searches, would lead to "boxcar" warrants being identical for each dwelling in a given area. To Clark such a system would create a false appearance of protecting rights, degrade the issuing magistrate and the judicial process, and be time consuming and costly.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972See v. City of Seattle - Significance, Protection From Administrative Searches, Impact, Related Cases