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8-29-12

Columbia issues 2-5
search warrants a month

by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark reporter

City officials in Platte City claim there is no specific reason why they are considering enacting a new administrative search warrant ordinance, which some Platte Citians believe will vastly intrude upon homeowner's and business owner's rights of privacy.

Instead the city argues that the ordinance will permit the city to conduct a search for code violations on one’s personal property without the owner's consent to “ensure the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare.”

The city also states it would protect the constitutional rights of the property owner since necessary procedures must be followed including obtaining a warrant from a municipal judge who has determined there is probable cause to believe the owner is in violation of a code.

City officials also allege the ordinance would protect the city from being sued on grounds of invasion of privacy.

Such measures have been taken in larger cities such as Kansas City, St.Louis, and Columbia.

Platte City officials have been quick to point out their proposal is modeled after the one in Columbia, which was upheld in a legal challenge by the state Supreme Court.

It is not clear whether an administrative search warrant ordinance adopted by a city equal in class to Platte City has ever been challenged in court.

Robert Rinck, assistant city prosecutor for the City of Columbia, said “…Administrative search warrants are another tool we utilize to enforce the city codes and are very helpful in not only determining violations but the extent of violations which gives us a better idea how to proceed whether it be through prosecution or correcting any problematic situations such as fire or health code violations.”

According to Rinck, whose office oversees the matter, the City of Columbia dispenses anywhere from two to five administrative search warrants a month.

“We do not issue search warrants on a daily basis,” said Rinck. “We can go weeks without a single warrant and then there may be times when we seem to be doing one a day for a short while.”

“The administrative warrants are issued on a myriad of subjects such as fire code violations, building code violations, health and nuisance violations, and rental/occupancy investigations,” said Rinck.

“We do not take the authority a search warrant gives us lightly as we understand we are still intruding upon a private individual’s privacy. Like any other legal process there are checks and balances and as with all search warrants, they must be based upon probable cause and signed by a judge authorizing the warrant,” he said.

The City of Columbia with a population of about 108,500 is considered a constitutional charter city. Platte City is rated a fourth class city which may affect whether or not the city has the authority to enact an administrative search warrant ordinance.

When asked whether a fourth class city has the authority to enact such an ordinance, Rinck said, “Without doing some extensive legal research, I wouldn't be able to give a good answer to whether a fourth class city could enact such an ordinance. On the surface it appears that they should be able to do so however I am unaware of any express grant of authority and I do not know if the issue has been litigated in the past.”

Rinck noted that an administrative search warrant ordinance must “meet specific criteria to be considered valid” in the court of law and make obvious the warrant requirements.

“This not only makes sure that the law is being followed but also assists the person requesting the warrant, the prosecutor reviewing the warrant, and the judge who is asked to authorize the warrant,” said Rinck.

He added Columbia's ordinance lays out specific guidelines detailing all that is needed to administer a valid warrant.

Critics of the administrative search warrant contend the ordinance is a violation of privacy rights, alleging homeowners should have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their home.

They also argue that the ordinance will open the door to a criminal investigation if by chance the officer accompanying the code enforcement officer sees an illegal substance or evidence of a crime.

The city’s public safety committee will hold a public hearing on Sept. 10 at 6 p.m. where citizens can comment on the proposed ordinance. The committee then has the option of passing the measure on to the full board of aldermen for final approval.

Aldermen who serve on the public safety committee are Debbie Kirkpatrick, Ron Stone and Tony Paolillo.