Ralliers say City Council's Unsafe Structures ordinance violates Fourth Amendment - Casper, WY Oil City News
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Ralliers say City Council’s Unsafe Structures ordinance violates Fourth Amendment

Ralliers for Fourth Amendment at Pioneer Park Saturday, June 13, 2020 (Oil CIty Staff)

CASPER, Wyo —  By 2:00 pm, Saturday, June 13, twenty citizens had gathered in Pioneer Park in downtown Casper to speak out against aspects of the city council’s Ordinance No. 12-20 to “provide a means by which to protect against and/or remediate structures unsafe for human occupancy.” City council members said the initiative is meant to make it easier for renters to hold their landlords accountable for building code maintainence and enforcement.

While those at the rally admitted that “there are some slumlords,” they worry the ordinance goes too far and will open the door to infringement on Fourth Amendment rights guaranteeing citizens’ freedom from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

“They’re expanding this to not just rental properties but all properties,” Dale Zimmerle said. “I think the city is overreaching,” he added.  Zimmerle is running for a Ward II City Council seat. He says the city has been overspending on projects like the Hogadon ski slope and maintenance at the Events Center, and, in light of budget shortfalls, should stick to spending on roads, sewers, and civil services like fire and police departments.

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“Currently we don’t believe we have the tools necessary to respond as appropriately as we would like… to correct basic life conditions that people are dealing with or are forced to deal with,” said City Manager Carter Napier at the city’s March 10 work session where the ordinance was introduced. Photos of unsanitary conditions obtained by the Casper-Natrona County Health Department and other services bolstered the city manager’s case for the necessity of the ordinance.

(Oil City Staff)

At particular issue for Saturday’s ralliers is a discussion during the March 10 work session in which City Building Manager Dan Elston said the new ordinance would give his permission to inspect building premises based on complaints from “renters, neighbors, employees, and social service agencies,” as written in an the amendment to Casper Municipal Code.

Councilman Charlie Powell asked Elston what would happen if the ordinance was passed and photos of unsanitary conditions were to reach the Building Department, given that the department currently doesn’t have the authority to enter buildings.

“This ordinance would make this complaint-driven,” Elston said at the work session. “Right now for me to go into a building or structure, I need a building permit that allows me to be on the premises. With this it would be by complaint, and with that complaint and the occupant allowing entrance, we are able to go in and check this out. This is complaint-driven rather than permit-driven, by being in the city ordinance.”

“This language is the first step to government officials coming onto your private property with no warning to cite you for stuff they believe is wrong, which would be the baby steps to a no-knock warrant,” said Woody Warren, a retail manager and “staunch Libertarian,” who attended the rally. He is also running for city council from Ward III.  

Pam Elrod also attended the rally and told Oil City in a phone interview she’s worried the ordinance would open the door to people calling in complaints on their neighbors for conditions they find disagreeable, but weren’t necessarily unsafe.  “Any complaint could lead to a warrant or a citation,” Elrod said. 

(Oil City Staff)

Most in attendance identified themselves as concerned personal property owners. Dave Mania, a landlord and former Marine, said his rental properties were maintained better than his own house. “I took an oath to uphold the Constitution, and this is clearly a violation of the Fourth Amendment,” he said of the ordinance.

“Anyone can turn you in,” said Linda Bergeron, chair of the Constitution Party of Natrona County Caucus, also in attendance on Saturday. “The grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence are being reimplemented here.”

(Oil City Staff)

“This is inserting private property into building construction codes.” Bergeron added. “We just finished building a house. It took five years, but it would have taken a year if we didn’t have extraneous codes we had to follow.”

Representative for Wyoming House District 57 Chuck Gray was also in attendance, and said that digital privacy was of particular concern. Elrod elaborated that it would be unconstitutional for a social services organization like Meals on Wheels or an unfriendly neighbor to take photos or video inside private property without the owners’ consent, especially given that such photos might lead to an warranted inspection by the Building/Inspection Department.

The ordinance passed its second reading by the City Council on June 2 with the approval of all but Councilman Kenneth Bates. Councilman Mike Huber, on the first reading, had proposed an amendment guaranteeing Fourth Amendment rights, but said it was not necessary after discussions City Attorney John Henley. 

“There is nothing in this code that implies a violation of the Fourth Amendment,” Huber said, adding that if people don’t consent to inspectors entering their homes, inspectors would be required to obtain a search warrant. Henley also said that landlords and tenants would have the ability to appeal citations issued by the building inspector.