Why have rights if you won't exercise them?  

COLUMBIA, Mo 6/14/17 (Op Ed) -- I recently became the latest Columbia property manager to exercise the Constitutional rights for which my ancestors fought and died when I insisted City Hall get search warrants to inspect rental properties.

Signed by a Columbia Municipal Judge, these so-called "administrative search warrants" short circuit the 4th Amendment requirement of "probable cause."   Judges issue them only on testimony from a city official that the renter or property manager is insisting on a warrant to enter the home, no probable cause required. 

A 1960s US Supreme Court case, Camara v. Municipal Court of the City and County of San Francisco, diluted the 4th Amendment for city inspections.   Challenges are underway to reverse Camara, forcing government officials back to the higher standard our Founding Fathers established.  

For now, though, the administrative warrants are better than granting blanket permission for city inspectors to traipse through residential rentals, and in recent years, abuse the privilege to enter upon what is home and castle. 

Unwarranted intrusions

Off the beat for about an hour, Columbia police officer Amy Bishop served the warrants and city inspector Ken Reeves inspected the units.  Re-inspections must follow the same procedure.

For years, I had signed away my rights and my renter's rights on the single-signature form the city's Office of Neighborhood Services (ONS) previously used as an application for "rental compliance," a permit system driven by a half-dozen fees that have spiked 70-370% since 2012.

But when the "Consent to Inspection" was broken out on a second signature line, I wondered just what I was signing.

An attorney friend asked me to ponder, especially in these post-Ferguson times, whether I wanted to assume liability for signing away my renters' Constitutional rights.

What if an inspector found something deeply personal, highly confidential, or later used against your renter in court? she asked.   What if that renter's attorney found out you signed away his or her client's 4th Amendment rights?  Who might get sued?

Did you sign up for the job of signing away someone else's rights?

Hadn't thought about it like that.

I also thought all inspectors were like veteran city inspector John Rogers, who passed away a few years ago.  "I consider it a privilege to inspect a person's home, not a right," he told me.  He treated my renters like people with rights and me like a professional.

But with retirements and turnover, that respectful attitude has mostly vanished from his department. Stories of high-handed condescension have become commonplace.   I have a few of my own.

Newbie inspector

On Dec. 11, 2014, I sent a letter to the man who oversees ONS, Timothy Teddy, about a newbie inspector named Brian inspecting three different rentals.

Brian "showed up 1) late, 2) early, and 3) at a time he was specifically requested not to because inclement weather was hampering efforts to make required outdoor corrections," I wrote.

At the first rental, "Brian showed up 10 minutes early.  The occupant, a young woman who worked nights, had set her alarm for the time he said he would arrive.

"He called me after knocking and not reaching her, left a message, and then proceeded 20 minutes early" to the second unit.

Here, "Brian showed up early not once, but twice. First, the renters, a young working couple, were unable to meet him, as they were expecting him at a different time.

"Subsequently, he was early again, but they were there to greet him. They expressed their displeasure about the early meetings, but said he was not interested in their concerns."

I enclosed the emails my renters sent with their complaint.
"Several of the 'violations' Brian noted were non-existent, including a 'missing' carbon monoxide detector that had been on the premises for years; a 'soft floor' that was hard as concrete; and a missing bolt lock that wasn't missing.

"I detailed all of this in my 6/9/14 letter to your office, for which I have received no response.
At a third unit, "I specifically requested a reinspection be delayed because it involved outdoor work during the wet spring. Brian showed up anyway, to the dismay of the 76-year-old occupant (with diabetes and heart disease) who had to greet Brian on three separate occasions."

Mr. Teddy did not respond to this letter, or the June letter that had preceded it. Additionally, his office  charged me fees for Brian's "missed inspections and reinspections."

Fee-hustling humiliation

During the search warranted inspections, I found Officer Bishop an exemplar of "community policing" and a delightful human being.

That said, I've come to view this rental inspection program as a fee-hustling form of humiliation for one subset of the community: renters, many of them low income.

They didn't sign up for this.  And in the end, neither did I.  I don't know why anyone in their right mind would.

-- Mike Martin
NEXT:  The rental inspection wars nationwide