DAVID ROSMAN: Apathy, not new ordinance, threatens civil liberties

Wednesday, July 17, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

I love conspiracies. They are so much fun to destroy.

Consider this one: The city now requires that all tenants be identified on a form to be kept at the lessor’s office which needs to be made available upon the request of a police officer or city inspector. 

That is true, but it may be more complicated than keeping a simple list of names. Can a cop knock on a tenant’s door and ask for identification? Would this be a violation of Fourth Amendment rights?

Good questions.

The new ordinance can be found under Section 22.184 of the city code: Certificate of compliance and notice of occupancy limitations. It reads:

"It shall be unlawful for any owner, operator, agent or property manager of a rental unit to fail to immediately exhibit, upon request by a police officer or city inspector investigating any code violation, all lease, rental payment, tenant information and the zoning occupancy disclosure form pertaining to the unit."

This council action was not taken in secret — the first reading was Dec. 17, it passed Jan. 7 and became effective Feb. 1.

It is largely the fault of the companies that own and lease apartments and homes in Columbia for not dealing with this matter in December. They had time to talk city leaders out of requiring yet one more piece of paper. Not much was done at the time.

Because leases are renewed in Columbia in August, landlords and property managers must now pay attention to the new ordinance.

Yes, the law does say that the list of names of occupants must be made available to the police or city inspector when requested. Doing so under the guise of checking for ordinance violations is quite questionable. At this point, acquiring a warrant to inspect these tenant records has not been tested in court.

Is Section 22.184 a possible Fourth Amendment violation?

The amendment states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”

The information required on the “official city form” is simple: date, name, telephone number and email address. No more. No Social Security number, no driver’s license number, nothing more than who are you and how you can be contacted.

Dan Viets, civil liberties attorney and founding member of the Missouri Civil Liberties Association explained the situation thusly:

“It appears to me that not only is Section 22.184 potentially a violation of the Fourth Amendment rights of landlords and tenants, but it is also arguably a violation of the Fifth Amendment rights of the landlords.

"If the landlord is being investigated for a suspected code violation, forcing that landlord to give up information which may be used against him or her in prosecution for that code violation is almost certainly a violation of the landlord’s Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate him or herself. ”

Self-incrimination? Of what? A building code violation?

Until someone believes the right to being “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” has been violated and until a court of proper jurisdiction says yea or nay, we can only speculate.

Can a police officer or other official knock on your door and ask for identification? Sure.

Do you have to comply? That depends on why the request is being made and if the cops are in full riot gear or in their daily blues. Most likely, we will not see a SWAT raid for the code violation of 12 people living in a two-bedroom apartment.

Most renters I spoke with really do not care; it is just another form to complete. If civil liberties are being threatened, it is not by the government, but through public apathy.

Here is the reality. The lessors need to stop whining about not knowing about Section 22.184; it was their own fault. However, until a lessor is convicted for not maintaining the required records, the constitutional question is moot. 

David Rosman is an editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. 

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Ellis Smith July 17, 2013 | 9:34 a.m.

Reminiscent of the title of one of William Shakespeare's plays: "Much Ado About Nothing."

The key word in the Fourth Amendment is obviously the word "reasonable." Surprise! We have a legal system in the United States for the purpose of deciding what is and isn't deemed "reasonable." If a person or organization wishes to challenge an ordinance based on "reasonableness," they may.

It's fascinating how portions of our Constitution appear terribly important to some, while other portions are treated as being of little importance. The Constitution is the basis of our government; it's not some Chinese restaurant menu.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin July 17, 2013 | 7:52 p.m.

Since when did challenging the Constitutionality or practicality of a law become a "conspiracy"?

Most people I know call it "democracy."

For a more accurate and thorough investigation of this issue, please see the following stories:

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 18, 2013 | 6:37 a.m.

@ Mike Martin:

Some folks enjoy conspiracies while others enjoy brautwurst. My preference is a regional dish called "Himmel und Erde," just like Grossmutter used to make it.

See my post, above. How serious do you think this particular situation is? You follow such things more closely than some of us. If it's serious, there are ways to correct it.

Don't most city councils of a city the size of Columbia retain an attorney to advise council members about legal aspects of ordinances under consideration? Obviously, such advisors are not apt to be Constitutional scholars from Harvard University or former Supreme Court justices, but they should serve to, as we say in the mineral industries, "screen out the boulders."

(Report Comment)

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