Why have rights if you won't exercise them?   Part 4a of a series

CoMo Property Mgmt. Report, 5/13/17 -- I became the latest Columbia property manager to exercise the Constitutional rights for which my ancestors fought and died when I insisted City Hall get six search warrants to inspect six rental properties.

Signed by a Columbia Municipal Judge, city inspection warrants basically short circuit the legal requirement of "probable cause", issued only on testimony from a city official.

But, for now, they're vastly better than granting blanket permission for city inspectors to traipse through my renters' homes, as I had previously done.

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".

But when the "consent to inspection" was broken out as 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 really 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.

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 has charged me for "missed inspections and reinspections."

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: Court cases and rental inspections