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PAPERS, PLEASE! New city law authorizes warrantless search of renter information

Tenants in Columbia are no longer secure in their "papers and effects"

COLUMBIA, 5/23/13 (Beat Byte) -- A Columbia city ordinance that took effect in February violates the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights, critics say. 

The so-called "Occupancy Disclosure Ordinance" of 2013 makes it "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."

The clause clashes head on with the Constitution's Fourth Amendment guaranteeing "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures."

Reasonable searches and seizures, the 4th Amendment states, are those supported by court-ordered warrants and probable cause.
 
"I don't believe that's the type of law we should be passing," attorney Skip Walther told the Columbia City Council about the Occupancy Disclosure Ordinance (ODO) in January.   "It's over-reaching and probably unconstitutional," Walther testified, on behalf of the Columbia Apartment Owners Association.  

The ODO has three parts, (a), (b), and (c).  The first two parts lay out its original and reasonable mandate:  to assure the number of persons occupying a rental unit does not exceed zoning requirements.  

Part (c) introduces the broad, vague language critics say conflicts with the Bill of Rights (which includes the 4th Amendment) and Federal privacy laws.

"As this ordinance is written, our police will supposedly have the right of an unlimited search of tenant information," Walther told the Council.   "That could be social security numbers, employment, family, and educational background. This ordinance gives police the right to search that information without a warrant."

Property managers acquire confidential tenant information when they perform a so-called "screening" before approving a prospective renter.  The screening usually includes credit information, employment and income verification, criminal and civil background checks.  
 
Only criminal and civil court records are public, however.   The other information is protected not only by the Fourth Amendment, but by privacy laws such as the Federal Credit Reporting Act.

The Occupancy Disclosure Ordinance's far-reaching language has prompted a broader look at Constitutionality in other city laws that authorize unwarranted searches.
 
Columbia's Rental Unit Conservation Law (RUCL) allows city inspectors and department directors "to enter upon and inspect the premises at any reasonable time for the purpose of determining whether or not the premises are in compliance with chapters 6, 9 (article II), 20, 23, 24, 25 and 29" of city codes.
 
NEXT: A twist in city rental law points to a better way
 
 
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