One of two city ordinances that violate the US Constitution may be revised

COLUMBIA, Mo 10/7/13 (Beat Byte) -- The Columbia City Council will review a city ordinance prominent local attorney Skip Walther labeled "probably unconstitutional and certainly over-reaching."   

Council members unanimously passed the so-called "occupancy disclosure ordinance" in January, over Walther's objections to wording that permits warrantless search of landlord and tenant records, in violation of the U.S. Constitution's 4th Amendment

The Columbia Heart Beat broke the story that a coalition of property owners, managers, and tenant rights groups was building to challenge the ordinance, one of two on the city's books that permit warrantless searches related to rental property.

"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," the occupancy disclosure ordinance currently reads

"All tenant information" would include credit and employment history, bank information, and other confidential matters disclosed on rental application forms.  

Ongoing protests over the occupancy law's overly-broad reach -- including a threat of litigation from the Columbia Board of Realtors -- prompted the Council to draft a revision under consideration at tonight's meeting.  

The revised ordinance removes the warrantless search requirement and simplifies occupancy disclosure, which seeks to prevent landlords from renting to more people than zoning regulations allow. 

Part of the United States Bill of Rights, the 4th 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."  Only judges and warrants, "supported by oath and affirmation," may order an official search.

While the occupancy disclosure ordinance permits warrantless search of "papers and effects," a second city ordinance, the rental unit conservation ordinance, permits warrantless search of "houses."  To apply for Columbia's mandatory rental compliance certificate under that ordinance, landlords must sign a notarized waiver of both their rights and their tenants' rights.

The waiver authorizes city officials "to enter upon and inspect the premises for which the certificate is sought at any reasonable time" to determine compliance with any of seven city regulations.  Tenants, meanwhile, have no say.

Strangely enough, both laws contradict a third city ordinance that prohibits searches without court-ordered warrants.  It's another legal conundrum Council members will doubtless have to rectify to avoid future lawsuits.