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San Diego: Environmental Law Update: Wetlands Inspection

In San Diego, there are many “wetland” areas. These can be found on the coast and also inland. All land use cases are different and all have individual facts. Land Use Attorneys can be located on three bar certified referral services in San Diego County including the San Diego County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service, Attorney Search Network and Attorney Referral Service. Our firm of Law Office of Scott C. Soady, A Professional Corporation, LLP is also available to assist in your estate planning and other legal needs. Please feel free to e mail our law firm.

Land Use cases can be heard in the San Diego Superior Court or the San Diego Federal Court. An experienced attorney is needed to evaluate any land use case.

Paul owned waterfront property that included some tidal wetlands that were subject to state regulation. When he decided to extend his existing dock and add another boat lift, he submitted the necessary application to the state, but he refused to consent to a land-based inspection of the premises. Nevertheless, following the usual procedure, an inspector went to the property to make sure that plans submitted with the application accurately reflected existing conditions and to evaluate the possible impact of the project on the wetlands.

When the inspector arrived and no one answered the door, she passed through a gate with a “No Trespassing” sign on it to get into the backyard that led to the dock area. With a video camera rolling, Paul confronted the inspector, who identified herself and explained the reason for her visit. Paul told the inspector that she was trespassing, threatened to have her arrested if she did not leave immediately, and then escorted her off the property. The whole encounter took about three minutes.

Paul sued the state inspector for violation of his right not to be subjected to unreasonable searches or seizures. It is true as a general rule that an inspection of a private dwelling by a local or state officer, without either a warrant or the consent of the owner, is unreasonable absent certain exceptional circumstances. Unfortunately for Paul, his case fell within one of those exceptions, causing his lawsuit to fail. Under the “special needs” doctrine applied by the court, a weighing of several factors can justify a warrantless administrative inspection undertaken as part of a regulatory scheme.

In Paul’s case, he had a diminished expectation of privacy since the outside areas around his home could be viewed by the public. Paul’s privacy interest was also weakened by his having submitted the application that prompted the inspection in the first place. The intrusion by the inspector was minimal and was hardly different from the kind of observation of the property that anyone could have accomplished from the water behind Paul’s house. The court emphasized that each case would turn on its particular facts, but in Paul’s case the state’s interest in regulating construction on tidal wetlands overrode any expectation of privacy.

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