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9-5-12


SEARCH WARRANT
HEARING MONDAY
Platte City property owners,
residents invited to give comments

by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark reporter

Residents and property owners in Platte City will soon have an opportunity to voice their concerns regarding a proposed administrative search warrant.

A public hearing on the city’s idea to adopt an administrative search warrant law to use as a tool for codes enforcement will be held Monday, Sept. 10 beginning at 6 p.m. at City Hall.

The hearing will be held as part of the public safety (police) committee meeting. Three aldermen serve on that committee. They are Ron Stone, Tony Paolillo and Debbie Kirkpatrick.

The committee will decide whether to recommend the proposal for adoption to the six member board of aldermen.

Members of the public who cannot attend Monday evening’s hearing but who wish to provide written remarks can send statements to City Hall, to Hubbard at ahubbard@plattecity.org or by fax to 858-5402.

The controversial proposed ordinance would allow the city to enter a home or business without the owner’s consent, if it provides probable cause for doing so to the city’s municipal judge.

MISSOURI MUNICIPAL LEAGUE OFFERS FEW ANSWERS

Weeks after city officials in Platte City proposed enacting an administrative search warrant ordinance questions regarding the matter continue to emerge.

Seeking answers, The Landmark contacted the Missouri Municipal League, whose intent since 1934 has been to develop unity through the cooperation of cities, towns and villages in Missouri to promote their interest and improve municipal government. The City of Platte City is a member of the Missouri Municipal League (MML).

The MML web site states the organization’s aim is "to develop an agency for the cooperation of Missouri cities, towns and villages and to promote the interest, welfare and closer relations among them in order to improve municipal government and administration in the state."

The web site goes on to say “the league's basic goal is to strengthen cities through unity and cooperation.”

Stuart Haynes with the Missouri Municipal League in Jefferson City said he does not know how many third and forth class cities in Missouri have enacted an administrative search warrant ordinance.

“I can tell you that other cities have done it,” said Haynes.

But the Missouri Municipal League could not provide an approximate number.

Haynes, who is a staff associate and not an attorney, added he is not aware of a state statute that grants third and fourth class cities the authority to establish an administrative search warrant ordinance. Platte City is considered a fourth class city.

“There's not something that specifically says they can,” he said. “But cities have general power to establish municipal courts and prosecute individuals for any nuisance,” said Haynes

“And so with the idea they can set up a court” third and fourth class cities have the ability to enact the administrative search warrant ordinance against nuisances, he said.

Nuisances have been defined by section 215.020 of the Platte City Code as an “act or circumstance, which causes annoyance or offense to another person or the community at large.”

Some folks fear the new ordinance would expand the city’s authority simply because of the ambiguous language of the ordinance and advance the search warrant ability of the city into codes enforcement.

City Administrator DJ Gehrt supports the city’s proposal.

Gehrt has said, “Essentially it's to allow us to do the same kind of enforcement that we used to be able to do.”

Gehrt said the current ordinance allows city officials onto private property at any “reasonable time” to carry out an investigation to determine whether the homeowner is in any sort of violation. But, Gehrt then said Missouri courts no longer allow code enforcement officers to gain entry without probable cause.

Therefore, if a home owner or business owner challenges the current law the city potentially would be in violation of Missouri Law.

Gehrt also contends that the current ordinance on the books limits code enforcement officers to enforcing only what is visible from a public road.

With a rising number of foreclosed homes, city officials see future potential problems. For that reason, some city officials now feel it is the appropriate time to enact such an ordinance.

“We have some situations where we would like to do code enforcement,” said Gehrt. “Right now we don't have any mechanism that allows us to walk up to the door if there's nobody there or if it's a foreclosed house or if the person refuses to allow us to inspect it. There is no way to enforce property building codes.”

One procedure that would change under this new ordinance is with “reasonable cause” a municipal judge may issue an “administrative search warrant” imposing the search or inspection of “any property, place, or thing and the seizure, photographing, copying or recording of property or physical conditions found…to prove the existence of violations of any ordinance or code…”

The city attorney, Jennifer Fain with the firm Witt, Hicklin & Snider, has recommended that a police officer accompany the codes inspector into the homes or businesses in instances in which an administrative search warrant has been granted.

Critics are contending that the ordinance would place excessive powers in the hands of city officials and enforcement officers. Critics say the ordinance is arbitrary and does not provide proper protection of one’s constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Since first reporting on the topic three weeks ago, The Landmark has received numerous calls, visits and emails from Platte City residents who have questions and concerns about the proposal. Multiple letters to the editor referencing the topic have been printed in The Landmark, and this week a resident took out a paid ad on the topic.