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Federal Court Finds Three Government Inspectors Violated the Fourth Amendment; Hits Neighbor With Trespass Trial

For Immediate Release | Oct 02, 2023

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan issued a 74-page decision late Friday ruling that a scheme between a neighbor and three government officials to secretly enter privately-owned land, without a warrant, violated the Fourth Amendment. The key piece of evidence was a photograph (above) taken at the time by the trespassing neighbor.

According to the court's opinion, Alcona County Building Department official Harry Harvey, now-former Caledonia Township Zoning Officer Ken Gibson, and District Health Department No. 2 Environmental Health Program Coordinator David Schmidt violated federal law under the Fourth Amendment when they collectively entered Michael and Susan Mockeridge's private 40-acre property west of Hubbard Lake on June 2, 2021 to inspect five already-built recreational mini-cabins. A fourth defendant, neighbor Keith Krentz, had utilized his connections to the three local officials to make anonymous complaints. The Mockeridges asserted the complaints were intentionally falsified and was the result of Krentz's unsuccessful attempt to own the property that the Mockeridges had purchased the prior autumn.

The case stems from an unannounced inspection that was coordinated by neighbor Krentz with Harvey, Gibson, and Schmidt in the summer of 2021. Permission to enter the property was never sought and none of the government officials secured judicial warrants prior to the search of the property. Text messages confirmed the officials purposely selected a date and time to make sure no one was at the premises. A photograph of the search was taken by Krentz when he joined them in the warrantless inspections.

Several of the government officials argued that, even if they did violate the Fourth Amendment, they should not be held responsible because they could not possibly know the permissionless and warrantless searching of private property containing cabins would violate a property owner's rights.

"If it looks like a home and is used like a home, it is probably entitled to the same Fourth Amendment protections as a home," explained Judge Thomas L. Ludington in the opinion. "Defendants violated clearly established law" as the "Supreme Court and Sixth Circuit precedent suggest a reasonable official in the[ir] position... should have known their conduct violated the Fourth Amendment."

Relatedly, neighbor Keith Krentz, the owner of Krentz Construction, was also separately ordered to stand trial for his trespass during the site visit. While government officials are generally not subject to enforcement for illegal trespassing, Krentz, a private citizen, is. All defendants were found to have trespassed but only Krentz is required to answer at the jury trial due to legal immunity enjoyed by government officials that excuse their illegal actions. Similar immunity is not available for Fourth Amendment violations by officials.

"The ruling is a clear confirmation that simply being an agent of the government does not mean you can go wherever and whenever you want," states the Mockeridge's attorney Philip L. Ellison of Outside Legal Counsel. "The Fourth Amendment protects against all government officials, including locals, from secretly peeping in our windows."

As part of the case, the Mockeridges also argued that Alcona County and Harvey further violated the Fourteenth Amendment by providing pre-clearance to build the mini-cabins and then later, after they were built, requiring five building permits and imposing a penalty. Judge Ludington rejected the challenge because, in his view, the lack of a building permit means that no rights were "vested" in favor of the Mockeridges. A later appeal of that portion of the decision is expected.

The case now heads to a full jury trial at the federal courthouse in Bay City on March 5, 2024.