Administrative inspections are a vital tool for agencies charged with guarding public health and safety at all levels of government. Fire, health, sanitation, building, and labor departments across the country rely on administrative inspections to ensure that regulated entities comply with laws and rules. But administrative inspections clearly have a privacy dimension as well—after all, an inspection may involve a uniformed agent of the government making demands to see documents or access nonpublic areas, sometimes under threat of criminal penalties and always with the specter of further enforcement action lingering in the background.

Finding the balance between these two competing interests—the government’s need to effectively enforce its mandates and the regulated entity’s constitutional right to privacy—animated a line of Supreme Court jurisprudence that resulted in the development of a specialized doctrine on administrative searches. In 2015, the Court decided City of Los Angeles v. Patel, a case that struck down an administrative inspection statute—a version of which had been on the books for more than a century—as facially violative of the Fourth Amendment.

This paper sketches the realized and potential impact on administrative searches of Patel and its progeny in the lower courts. First, it examines the history and background of the doctrine, tracing its development in the pre-Patel era. Next, it reviews the Patel decision itself. Finally, it examines post-Patel cases in the circuit courts and attempts to draw from them lessons and continuing questions for legislatures and regulatory authorities.

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