Code Enforcement and the Fourth Amendment

City codes can cause angst on many levels. People either believe their privacy and the way they deal with their property is being infringed upon, or people think the actions of their neighbors are dragging down their own property values.
It really is a no-win situation. Whatever a code enforcement officer does is going to be scrutinized.
But there are points at which code enforcement crosses the line. And that may be the case in St. George. A group of people calling themselves Citizens Against Incumbent Tyrannical Servants (CAITS) has worked to shed light on what they believe are unconstitutional practices by the city. Among the allegations is the possibility that code enforcement officers are entering a person’s property to take photos of infractions without prior consent and without a warrant.
The issue has escalated to the point that two residents — Jake and John Rowley — filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court in Salt Lake City against the city, Mayor Dan McArthur and code enforcement officers urging St. George officials to amend its laws that appear to allow enforcement officers to enter people’s yards without permission or a warrant. The lawsuit seeks repayment of attorney fees and “nominal, compensatory, and punitive damages,” as well as a declaration that three provisions of the code are unconstitutional.People who believe the city’s code enforcement goes too far no doubt applaud this action. But there is another side.
Unless people have lived next to neighbors who don’t cut their grass, who store junked-out cars in their yards or who leave trailers parked in such a way that they block driveways, they may have no idea how frustrating it can be that codes aren’t enforced. Likewise, people who are just using their property as they see fit — particularly those who store things out of sight behind fences and walls — believe their freedoms are being trampled upon because of over-zealous enforcement.
In some instances, it’s difficult to know where to draw the line because of that tenuous balance between property rights of the person and the neighbor.
But there should be a clear line when it comes to entering a person’s property without a warrant or prior consent. If that is happening — and it will take a court battle such as the one filed to determine if that is truly the case — then there should be serious consequences for the city. Code violations may be nuisances, but the Constitution provides for the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. Trespassing would seem to be unreasonable.
Needless to say, other municipalities will be paying close attention to this case filed in Salt Lake City. And if the plaintiffs win, cities across the country may need to take a good, long look at their codes and how they enforce the laws on their municipal books.