GREENSBORO, NC -- The City of Greensboro announced in a Friday afternoon press release that city inspectors and police officers will be conducting a mass "room-by-room" search of all 177 units of Heritage House apartment complex beginning on Monday, tomorrow.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution as well as city ordinance require that tenants — not their landlords, but the occupying tenants — give their explicit permission before government officials and police can enter their homes for these kinds of searches (even if they are called inspections) or that the inspectors have a warrant. The City said in its press release that this action is in response to a petition by the building's residents, but they did not provide the wording of the petition or the names or the number of residents who signed it. A petition from your neighbors does not give the government permission to enter your home — not without your permission or a warrant.
I have asked the City for copies of records of each tenant's authorization and for any warrants issued authorizing these inspections as well as for a copy of the petition. Absent explicit permission from the tenants of any given home or a warrant, it would be illegal for the City to enter, no matter how many neighbors requested it, as it should be in a country where citizens are safeguarded by the Fourth Amendment.
While the City has sent out a press release inviting media to cover the raid and announcing that city officials will be available for interviews, they also have announced that the media will be confined to a staging area and no media will be allowed inside the complex where the searches will be occurring, assuring that the actions of inspectors and police will remain hidden from public scrutiny. What will the response of the inspectors and police be if they encounter a locked door, a hesitant tenant or a tenant ignorant of her rights? Due to the media blackout, we will not know. What will the response of the police be if they discover other illegal activity unrelated to building codes?
The City said the media blackout is necessary "for safety reasons" and, ironically, "to protect the privacy of the residents." At the very least, a pool reporter and camera person, chosen by the reporters present, should be allowed inside the complex to monitor this unprecedented undertaking. (Pool reporters then share their notes and recordings with the other reporters by mutual agreement.) Alternately, since this raid is scheduled over three days, reporters could rotate in and out.
Elected Officials' Responsibilities
Two more people inside the building at any given time should not cause a safety concern and reporters can stay in the hallways while residents decide for themselves whether they mind reporters accompanying the government officials entering their homes. Failure to allow even this minimal degree of oversight would be an alarming warning to our elected officials that something is wrong and that their intervention is required.
Actually, our city council has two responsibilities here. One is to intervene if media will not be permitted to cover the actual undertakings of the inspectors and police inside the building, but first and foremost is to assure that these inspections are being conducted legally and with respect for the rights of our city's citizens in the first place.