Archive for Friday, May 17, 2002

City rental inspectors serve warrant

May 17, 2002


Mary Jones opened the door Thursday afternoon to two city inspectors standing on her front stoop. They were there to inspect her home under the city's new rental licensing program.

"Hey gentlemen," she said. "I hope you have a warrant."

They did.

Since February, officials have been inspecting rental homes registered in single-family areas under an ordinance passed last year by the Lawrence City Commission.

But some tenants, including Jones, have refused entrance to the inspectors. Thursday, the city executed the first two administrative search warrants allowing officials to inspect the homes anyway.

Assistant City Manager Dave Corliss, the city's director of legal services, said the use of a warrant for housing code enforcement was a rare but not unprecedented move.

"We don't do it very often," he said. "We may have to do it more with the rental inspection program."

Jones and her husband, Richard, refused in April to allow inspection of their home in the 1700 block Miller Drive, saying it violated their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches. She is one of the plaintiffs in an anticipated federal lawsuit to try to overturn the ordinance. City officials said it was coincidence her home was one of the first inspected using a warrant.

"I don't feel they have a right to come in my house," Jones said. "They're searching people's homes on the off-chance they're breaking the law. What kind of precedent is that?"

Officials say the inspections are only to ensure a tenant's home meets city requirements for building safety. The warrant served on the Joneses allowed a police officer to accompany the inspectors, but only for security purposes.

"Police officers shall not search the dwelling ... or yard for evidence of any crime," said the warrant signed by Douglas County District Judge Robert Fairchild. "But (they) may seize any incriminating items located in plain view."

No police entered the home Thursday, although an officer stood outside on the street. City inspectors Shawn Murphy and Lee Smith conducted what appeared to be a routine building inspection under the watchful eyes of the Joneses, their landlord, Herbert Friedson, several allies and the media.

Mark Lehmann, a Lawrence landlord and a member of the Citizens Rights Committee that is coordinating the federal lawsuit, was one of the onlookers.

"How could you be an American citizen and search somebody's home without their permission?" he said.

Murphy and Smith tried to avoid confrontation.

"I'm not trying to argue with you, ma'am," Murphy told Mary Jones at one point. "I'm just trying to do my job."

"And my job is to protect my home from unreasonable searches," Richard Jones said.

The inspectors found only minor building code violations for electrical outlets and a gas pipe at the home, and told Friedson they would return June 14  with another warrant if need be  to make sure the repairs are finished.

Friedson said he wasn't bothered by the search.

"I'm not opposed to inspections if it's for the purpose of making sure the property is safe and presentable on the outside," he said.

Mary Jones, though, told the inspectors they could expect legal action.

Corliss said the city ordinance was based on others across the nation that have passed federal court scrutiny.

"It is a point of pride in this office and in this building that we follow the law," he said.

One more warrant inspection is planned soon, officials said, and more will probably follow.

The inspectors also visited a house in the 2100 block of Kentucky Street.

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