Apathy, not new ordinance, threatens civil liberties

Reprinted with permission of the Columbia Missourian.

This deals with a rather small issue in Columbia Missouri, but the bigger issue, ‘apathy until it concerns you,” is true no matter what level of government you seek. When it finally does concern you, it is usually too late to do anything.   Regardless of what the industry is saying, the ordinance discussed here was on the city council’s agenda for three meetings and open to public comment for two.

BY DAVID ROSMAN  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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About David Rosman

David is the winner of the Missouri Press Foundation's "Best Columnist" in 2013 (First Place) and 2014 (Second Place), the 2016 Harold Riback Award for excellence in writing, and the winner of the 2007 Interactive Media Award for excellence in editing.
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