The rights of Due Process and protection against Unreasonable Searches are among the most fundamentally American concepts. In the last two hundred and fifty years, while other countries have revolted against their authorities, the United States has proudly stood as an example of principled freedom. And best of all, when citizens do believe some of those rights have been violated, legal moves, not violence, is the answer that provides justice, such as in this story in the Beehive State, where a Utah lawyer filed a motion to get a class action suit on behalf of 3,200 residents who assert “that the city’s code enforcement program infringed on their legal rights.”
In this case, the citizens of the City of St. George followed their noses, and finding something smelling rotten, found it: city administrators devised an “ordinance enforcement scheme” a few years ago that was to expedite citations. But it also ended up circumventing “the due process required in criminal cases.” A Utah lawyer might have found the city’s plans suspect from the beginning, but the numbers coming forward now in the federal case made a strong argument. Not only are more than three thousand claiming their homes were searched illegally, another 16,000 residents have claimed that they “have had their properties encumbered and/or been fined as part of the ordinance enforcement scheme.”
But when does a government code become a scheme? The people of St. George would point to when they began to sniff out corruption lurking behind official looking processes. It doesn’t help that the “judge assigned to administer the program stepped down,” and his replacement “resigned shortly before leaving to take another position in Nevada.” Were these conscionable men who refused to take part in an illegal scheme? Residents of the City of St. George see it that way.
The Utah lawyer representing the class action suit pointed to the complaint filed itself, which alleged that the city “had moved their ordinance enforcement from the criminal law arena into a quasi-criminal arena where many Constitutional rights were not in play.” Imagine being fined immediately without notice or a chance to rectify your code violation for something as simple as weeds being too tall, or having your home searched without warning after a city administrative program whose legal base was flimsy to begin with gave officials the go-ahead.
Utah lawyers would likely agree that it’s not the oft-cited principle of “having nothing to hide” or the responsibility of keeping up with code in the first place that should dictate the public response to a program like this: it’s the fact that when Constitutional rights are being violated, programs like this one begin to foment distrust. In places like Utah, there’s probably enough skepticism of the government to begin with, that perhaps the City of St. George is lucky that all they’re getting out of this shameful program is a lawsuit, and not armed defensive posturing like in other places in the American West.