MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.
An information was filed against the respondent Geraldine Little in the Municipal Court for the District of Columbia charging that she had interfered with a District Health Department inspector in the performance of his official duties. The evidence showed that respondent had told the health officer, who had no search warrant, not to enter her home to inspect its sanitary condition; she had also refused to unlock her door. She was convicted and fined $25. The Municipal Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures forbade the health officer to enter respondent's private home without a search warrant. 62 A.2d 874. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed on the same grounds. 85 U. S. App. D. C. 242, 178 F.2d 13. The case raises important questions concerning legal provisions for protecting the health of the people by special and periodic inspection
In this Court the constitutional arguments have extended far beyond the comparatively narrow issues involved in the particular case. At one extreme the District argues that the Fourth Amendment has no application whatever to inspections and investigations made by health officers; that to preserve the public health, officers may without judicial warrants enter premises, public buildings and private residences at any reasonable hour, with or without the owner's consent. At the opposite extreme, it is argued that no sanitary inspection can ever be made by health officers without a search warrant, except with a property owner's consent. Between these two extremes are suggestions that the Fourth Amendment requires search warrants to inspect premises where the object of inspections is to obtain evidence for criminal punishment or where there are conditions imminently dangerous to life and health, but that municipalities and other governing agencies may lawfully provide for general routine inspections at reasonable hours without search warrants. An impressive array of facts is also presented concerning the uniform practices of agencies of local governments to provide for such general routine inspections in connection with sanitation, plumbing, buildings, etc.
Neither the facts of this case, nor the District law on which the prosecution rests, provide a basis for a sweeping determination of the Fourth Amendment's application to all these varied types of investigations, inspections and searches. Yet a decision of the constitutional requirement for a search in this particular case might have far-reaching and unexpected implications as to closely related questions not now before us. This is therefore an appropriate case in which to apply our sound general policy against deciding constitutional questions if the record
The District regulation which respondent was convicted of violating is set out in part below.
Although force or threatened force is not always an indispensable ingredient of the offense of interfering with an officer in the discharge of his duties, mere remonstrances or even criticisms of an officer are not usually held to be the equivalent of unlawful interference.
Had the respondent not objected to the officer's entry of her house without a search warrant, she might thereby have waived her constitutional objections.
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
MR. JUSTICE BURTON, with whom MR. JUSTICE REED concurs, dissenting.
If this Court is to interpret an ordinance of the District of Columbia, it seems to me that the action of the respondent was an effective interference with an inspector of the District Health Department in the performance of his official duties, and that such conduct of the respondent violated the ordinance that is before us. In my opinion, also, the duties which the inspector was seeking to perform, under the authority of the District, were of such a reasonable, general, routine, accepted and important character, in the protection of the public health and safety, that they were being performed lawfully without such a search warrant as is required by the Fourth
Accordingly, the conviction of the respondent should be sustained, and the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals affirming the judgment of the Municipal Court of Appeals setting aside that conviction should be reversed.
"10. That the Health Officer shall examine or cause to be examined any building supposed or reported to be in an unsanitary condition, and make a record of such examination; . . . .
"12. That any person violating, or aiding or abetting in violating, any of the provisions of these regulations, or interfering with or preventing any inspection authorized thereby, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall, upon conviction in the Police Court, be punished by a fine of not less than $5 nor more than $45." Commissioners' Regulations Concerning the Use and Occupancy of Buildings and Grounds, promulgated April 22, 1897, amended July 28, 1922.
There is another interesting difference between the above statute and the regulation here involved. The statute expressly limits inspection to the hours between 8 a. m. and 5 p. m.; the regulation has no limitation of this or indeed of any other type, though petitioner admits that a requirement of "reasonableness" should be read into it. See also 49 Stat. 1917, 1919, § 10.