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Court Questions if Search Warrants are Needed for Infractions


The changes in the state of the economy have produced changes in living arrangements for many people. Most cities in the United States have legal codes that detail what type of structure a building is. If the structure is not zoned as a multiple family dwelling, it is illegal to use it as one. With the downturn of the economy, many larger homes in New York have been purchased by slum lords who illegally subdivide them into multiple family dwellings. A New York Sex Crimes Lawyer said when a code enforcement agent is notified that an illegal boarding house is in existence, they must investigate the claim. Some of the indicators that they look for that suggest that a house is being used as an illegal rooming house involve the existence of extra kitchens, plumbing, or bedrooms located in a basement. Sometimes a home will have a mother-in-law suite in the basement that is occupied by a close relative. That is not an illegal boarding arrangement even if the relative helps with the bills on the house. If the mother-in-law suite is occupied by a family who is paying rent to the homeowner and is not related to the homeowner, they are probably in violation of the city codes.

When two distinct families are residing in a house that is zoned as single family dwellings, the homeowner could be found to be in violation of the housing codes. Another red flag that may expose an illegal rooming house is if the code enforcement investigator observes evidence that there are separately keyed entrances, or key locked doors on individual rooms within the house. Individual locks indicate that separate privacy zones exist in the house. A New York Sex Crimes Lawyer said that these separate zones are the sleeping quarters of persons who are either distantly related, or not related at all to the home owner, it is possible that the homeowner is in violation of the housing codes.

Other evidence can also demonstrate that a house is being used as an illegal rooming house. One way that an illegal rooming house is exposed is often through the utility usages of the home. When more than the normal number of people are living in a single family dwelling, the utility usage becomes extreme. One of the first indicators of a large number of people in a single family house is an increase in garbage that is put out to be collected. More people make more trash. They also use more water and electricity. A spike in either of these utilities can indicate that a single family zoned home is being used as an illegal boarding house. Code enforcement agents may use search warrants, but they are rarely necessary in the course of their investigations. Some code enforcement agents in larger cities often use search warrants because it is the only way to see inside of the residence if the people living there refuse to allow them access. A Suffolk County Sex Crime Lawyer said when they do obtain search warrants, they are generally limited to warrants that are executed during the day, or other times when the intrusion is less invasive than execution of a warrant in the middle of night. The execution of a code enforcement warrant should be less of an intrusion into the private lives of the citizens of the jurisdiction than the execution of a criminal warrant. However, when law enforcement officers are involved, their expertise is often limited to criminal warrants and most have never served a code enforcement warrant in their careers.

When this type of situation occurs, the results can be disastrous. That was the case with a single family house located at 335 Princeton Street in Westbury, New York. A code enforcement officer had recently transferred to the village of Westbury from a much larger township. The norm in the township that he transferred from was to use search warrants to obtain evidence when probable cause existed to determine that a single family residence was being used to operate an illegal multi-family boarding house.

The investigator began by documenting his reasons for believing that the home was the location of an illegal boarding house. He documented that there were numerous toys in the yard, and that the amount of toys in the yard was extreme for a single family dwelling. He then began to document to motor vehicles that were parked at the location. He documented that at different times of the day, between seven and eight cars were often parked at the location. Upon running the tag numbers of the cars, he gathered the evidence that they were registered to different people with different last names of the home owner. He then walked around the home and noticed that a side entrance to the basement appeared to be a separate home from the rest of the house. He heard a baby crying from inside and knocked on the door. He was denied entry into the apartment, but from where he stood, he could see that it did appear to be an apartment and not just a basement.

The confidential informants came to him to offer information about the dwelling house. They stated that the house was being used as an illegal boarding house and that undocumented workers were paying exorbitant amounts of money in rent to live in the house. A Nassau County Sex Crime Lawyer said they stated that each bedroom had a separate lock and that whole families were living in each bedroom. He next contacted the garbage collector for the area. The garbage collector provided a statement that the amount of garbage that was collected from that house was around three to four times the amount that he usually collected from single family houses.

Armed with this information, the code enforcement officer went to the village magistrate to apply for a warrant. Although the village magistrate had never signed a code enforcement warrant before, she signed the warrant. She marked that the warrant could be executed by any law enforcement officer of the state of New York. On the date that the warrant was executed, the code enforcement officer had several police officers meet with him to execute the warrant based on the number of undocumented persons that he expected to find in the house and the level of danger that was involved in going into a home by force. The law enforcement officers who went with the code enforcement officer were not aware that there is a difference in the level of intrusiveness allowed between a criminal warrant and a code enforcement unit. The warrant was issued only for photographs and video tapes of the conditions that were in existence in the house.

However, when the warrant was executed, it was very early in the morning. The time was before six o-clock and the residents of the house were primarily in their beds. That meant that when the police officers entered the home, many of the residents were naked or only partially clothed as they were ordered out of their rooms. As indicated in the probable cause to obtain the warrant, each room had a separate lock on it with whole families living in each. The Certificate of Occupancy for the house was listed as a one family dwelling. The problems associated with this warrant were brought to the forefront when the case went to court.

The court questioned the need to obtain a search warrant in cases that involve administrative warrants such as warrants for code enforcement infractions. The village magistrate may not have been the proper administrator for this type of action. Also, the defense paraded the problems that are associated with homelessness and legal shelters. The first problem was the fear and intrusiveness associated with the execution of the warrant. The warrant was executed in the early morning hours. When the police entered the home, they woke up the residents and had them gather in a central room of the house in various degrees of disrobement. Photographs were taken of these residents that the defense claims was an illegal intrusion into the lives of the persons living in the home. The court agrees that the entire execution of the warrant was ill-conceived.

The court determined that in the future, no warrants based on code enforcement or zoning issues shall be made before a reasonable time of the morning. The execution of a search warrant is frightening to most people, it is even more so for people who are undocumented workers. Many of these people do not speak English and are therefore even more frightened by an early morning intrusion upon their sleeping quarters. The danger to the officers involved was also reviewed. There is little doubt that intruding upon a person who is asleep can create a more volatile environment than a daytime execution of a warrant. The court determined that the level of danger involved especially when the people who are surprised may not speak English or understand that the warrant is being executed by sworn agents. They may in fact believe that they are being attacked and react with violence. The results of a code or zoning violation is not worth the threat to human life that executing a warrant of this type in the early morning hours can create.

Secondly, the court evaluated the problems that became apparent with the persons who were being housed at the dwelling. Many were being charged outrageous sums of money to reside in one bedroom with their entire families. The slum conditions that existed within the home were deplorable, however, when they attempted to discover what recourse the undocumented workers had who were living there, the problem raised more disturbing questions than it answered. They discovered that the few legal boarding houses that people were referred to were in deplorable conditions. Many of the legal boarding houses were even worse than the one that was the target of that early morning warrant. Many divided families by restricting the persons who reside in the houses by sex. The inability to live with the entire family together can be enough in most cases to ensure that the family will resort to an illegal boarding house.

The decision of the court in this case was that in order to eliminate the problem of illegal boarding houses, the state must solve the problem of appropriate legal housing for this homeless population. The problem will persist as long as there are homeless undocumented workers who are in need of housing. Most cities have requirements that limit the placement of multi-family dwellings. The problem is that if no one allows a boarding house in their neighborhood, only illegal boarding houses will be present. This case demonstrated a need that is greater than the solution provided in one search warrant or prosecution.

At Stephen Bilkis & Associates with its immigration lawyers there are convenient offices throughout New York State and Metropolitan area. Our housing attorneys can provide you with advice to guide you through difficult situations. Hiring a civil litigation Lawyer can prevent you from losing precious time with your family.

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