If you are a renter or landlord in Columbia, MO, you should be concerned. In fact, you should be angry. During their January 7th meeting, while nearly all student renters were out of town, the Columbia City Council voted away your 4th Amendment rights by passing an ordinance that allows police and government bureaucrats access to your personal rental information, including your Social Security Number and financial information, without a warrant.
THE FOURTH AMENDMENT: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The ordinance that was passed gives police and city bureaucrats access to all lease, rental payment, and tenant information if they are investigating any code violation.
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 words to pay attention to here are “any” and “all.” This means that if there is chipped paint on your rental house or a cracked sidewalk out front, it’s open season on all of your personal rental information. If you lived outside the city limits of Columbia, access to this same information, under the same circumstances, would require a warrant.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures was an important driver behind the American Revolution as evidenced by James Otis’s famous speech against King George’s writs of assistance. Our friends over at Americans For Forfeiture Reform wrote a nice post about Otis. Read it HERE. Writs of assistance were basically open ended, unlimited search warrants granted to officials. In effect, the Columbia City Council granted a writ of assistance to the Columbia Police Department and city inspectors.
Otis called writs of assistance…
…the worst instrument of arbitrary power, the most destructive of English liberty and the fundamental principles of law, that ever was found in an English lawbook.
It is important to note that renters are oftentimes among the most vulnerable populations in our city, either transient students or permanent residents who lack the means for home ownership. In Columbia, if you have enough money to own a home, you enjoy 4th Amendment protections from warrantless searches. If you cannot afford to own your own home, our City Council says that you do not deserve the same protection under the law.
This ordinance is aimed at addressing the problem of over-occupancy in Columbia’s rental property. Local attorney Skip Walther made some very strong arguments to the Council against this silly ordinance. In his remarks to the council, which were completely ignored, he points out three things:
1. Over-Occupancy is not a problem.
Columbia is home to approximately 25,000 rental units. In 2012 there were 46 over-occupancy complaints filed with the city. Of the 46 complaints, 26 were found to be invalid after investigation. This means that there were 20 valid over-occupancy complaints sustained in 2012. This means that in 2012 over-occupancy was a problem in .08% of Columbia’s rental properties. That’s less than one sustained infraction for every 1000 rental units. This ordinance is a needless action that does more harm than good and does nothing to curb over-occupancy.
Although the proposal for the ordinance mentioned that there would be no cost to the City, there is a cost. Landlords will be required to collect and maintain files on every rental property they own. Landlords will also be required to make changes to their leases and tailor leases to specific properties. This, of course, will require the expertise of an attorney and represents a significant cost for the property owner. Considering that many property owners in Columbia are small investors who make very little, if any, immediate profit from their properties, the cost of compliance with this ordinance represents a significant hit — a hit that without a doubt will be passed on to renters. In fact, these costs will be passed on to renters by landlords large and small.
Walther also argues that the ordinance may very well violate the Constitutional rights of both the landlord and the tenant, rights guaranteed by the 4th amendment.
You can watch Walther’s impressive address to the Council in this video.
Later in the discussion, Councilperson Fred Schmidt responded to Walther with remarks that demonstrate the antagonistic relationship between the Council and Columbia’s rental industry. Schmidt openly accused all of Columbia’s landlords of fraudulently refusing to return security deposits to student tenants. Schmidt literally suggested that landlords use these funds, funds which Schmidt insinuates are stolen, to offset the expense of compliance with this ordinance.
The landlords of Columbia should be more than angered by the slanderous statements made by Fred Schmidt.
I propose that the rental property owners of Columbia form a coalition to fight this harmful and ultimately idiotic ordinance. Landlords should all chip in to create a legal defense fund. Keep Columbia Free’s legal council believes that landlords do not have to wait to be fined for not complying or wait for a 4th Amendment violation via an illegal search to have standing to file suit against the City of Columbia on Constitutional grounds. Merely being asked to comply with this illegal ordinance should be enough to provide standing. If every landlord in Columbia were to chip in $1 for every unit, there would be $25,000 available for a lawsuit against the City.
I also propose that all of Columbia’s renters and renter advocacy groups work together to protect renter information from from warrantless searches and seizures under this poisonous ordinance.
Please contact your City overlords immediately. You will find contact information HERE.
This incremental erosion of our Natural Rights must be addressed at every turn lest we become frogs boiled by the cretins who govern us.