The Lawletter Vol 43 No 3
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures of their persons or property. See U.S. Const. amend. IV. The exclusionary rule prohibits the use of evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. See United States v. Calandra, 414 U.S. 338, 347 (1974). However, the exclusionary rule does not apply to all proceedings or against all persons and is generally restricted to areas in which the goal of deterring unlawful police conduct is "most efficaciously served." Id. at 348. In determining whether the exclusionary rule applies, the U.S. Supreme Court has developed a balancing test whereby courts weigh the likely social benefits of excluding unlawfully obtained evidence against the possible costs. See INS v. Lopez Mendoza, 468 U.S. 1032, 1041 (1984).
Typically, the exclusionary rule has been confined to cases in which the state seeks to use illegally seized evidence to criminally prosecute an individual who experienced an unlawful search. See Calandra, 414 U.S. at 347, 354. The exclusionary rule is occasionally applied outside of a pure criminal proceeding, however. For instance, the Minnesota Supreme Court has held that the exclusionary rule applies to a civil forfeiture action, see Garcia Mendoza v. 2003 Chevy Tahoe, 852 N.W.2d 659, 667 (Minn. 2014), as well as a civil implied consent proceeding, see Ascher v. Comm'r of Pub. Safety, 527 N.W.2d 122, 125 (Minn. Ct. App. 1995), review denied (Minn. Mar. 21, 1995); see also State v. Lemmer, 736 N.W.2d 650, 654 (Minn. 2007) (revocation of a driver's license after a DWI arrest).
In Nationwide Housing Corp. v. Skoglund, 906 N.W.2d 900 (Minn. Ct. App. 2018), the Minnesota court held, as a matter of apparent first impression, "that the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule does not extend to a civil eviction proceeding brought by a private landlord." Id. at 905. In that case, a private landlord filed an eviction action alleging that the tenant had violated the lease by possessing illegal drugs on the property. Although the tenant argued that an eviction is similar to the quasi-criminal civil forfeiture proceeding, the appellate court emphasized that an eviction proceeding is clearly civil in nature and solely determines whether "an occupant may be removed from possession of real property by the process of law." Id. at 904. Moreover, "unlike a civil forfeiture, in which the goal is to penalize for the commission of an offense against the law, or an implied consent proceeding, in which revoking a driver's license is typically associated with an arrest, the purpose of an eviction action is to determine the right of present possession and to reinforce the public policy of preventing parties from taking the law into their own hands[.]" Id. (internal citations omitted). In other words, unlike the criminal context, "[t]he district court's duty in this eviction action is to decide whether [the tenant] violated the lease, not whether he violated the law." Id. at 905.
Furthermore, the Minnesota court relied on cases from "other jurisdictions [that] have chosen not to extend the exclusionary rule to similar civil proceedings, such as forcible entry and detainer actions." Id. at 904-05 (citing U.S. Residential Mgmt. & Dev., LLC v. Head, 922 N.E.2d 1, 5 (Ill. App. Ct. 2009) (forcible entry and detainer actions are civil in nature and not quasicriminal); Hous. Auth. of Stamford v. Dawkins, 686 A.2d 994, 996-97 (Conn. 1997) (the exclusionary rule does not apply to summary process action alleging lease violations)).
As noted in a leading Fourth Amendment treatise:
[I]n the private search private litigation cases, the courts have usually focused upon the character of the search in holding the evidence admissible. The leading case is Sackler v. Sackler, [203 N.E.2d 481 (N.Y. 1964),] where a husband seeking a divorce was permitted to establish adultery by evidence secured by a forced entry into his wife's separately maintained apartment. The court held that the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule "is of course not controlling here or even applicable since its impact is on governmental seizures only and not on evidence illegally gathered by private persons." Other courts have reached the same conclusion, [see cases collected in Annot., 5 A.L.R.3d 670 (1966),] the lone exception being Williams v. Williams, [221 N.E.2d 622 (Ohio C.P. 1966),] where the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule was held applicable on the ground that "certainly no individual has a greater power than the government itself."
1 Wayne R. LaFave, Search and Seizure: A Treatise on the Fourth Amendment § 1.7(h) (Westlaw database updated Oct. 2017); see also United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 113 (1984) (the exclusionary rule "proscrib[es] only governmental action; it is wholly inapplicable to a search or seizure, even an unreasonable one, effected by a private individual not acting as an agent of the Government or with the participation or knowledge of any governmental official." (internal quotation marks omitted)).
Thus, although the exclusionary rule is sometimes applied outside of purely criminal proceedings, it has not been applied to a typical landlord-tenant relationship, at least by the several courts that have addressed the question.