By: Rudy Serra
Q: I’VE BEEN GETTING CITATIONS from the City because I have a car with a flat tire and another car that I’m repairing in my garage. They’re on private property, and I have a privacy fence. I don’t understand how they can do that when the cars are my private property, being kept on my private property.
Answer: The issue is not whether you have a right to privacy. You do. Generally, this means that government agents can’t enter or search your property without a warrant in a criminal matter. The right to privacy protects people and not places. The fact that property is designated “private” does not mean it is immune from government regulation, taxes and other laws.
The government does not need a warrant if something in on private property but is in “plain view.” If they can see a car from the street or from any of the neighbor’s property, then they would be entitled to act on what they see without a warrant.
Building and Code Enforcement regulations vary from city to city. In your city, a “warning” is issued. You complained that the printed form allowed you 72 hours to correct the problem and that the officer scratched that out and wrote in 24 hours. In either case, you are given an opportunity to correct the problem before anything else is done. You may have an argument, however, that the officer should not have discretion to arbitrarily take 48 hours notice away from you.
Some code violations are not crimes. They are “civil infractions.” You can be charged fines and you can be charged the cost of correcting a problem if the government unit takes action after you don’t. You cannot be jailed for a civil infraction.
Motor vehicles present additional issues. The state requires cars to be licensed and insured if they are operable. Local codes often forbid storing a car that is not operable. In your case, neither car is currently licensed or insured because you don’t drive them. Whether or not you license or insure them, each car has a “title” based on Vehicle Identification Number on file with the Secretary of State. If you have title to a car that shows up at a crime scene, or disabled or abandoned, whoever has title will be held responsible. You hold title to both the cars involved here. In your case, if the city sends a wrecker to remove the cars, you can be billed for the costs, and the city can sue you to try to force you to pay the bill.
Every parcel in a city is in a “zone” that allows certain uses. Your property is zoned as “residential.” The code in your city does not allow a person to store an inoperable vehicle on any residential property for more than a short time period.
Zoning and building codes are part of the “police power” of the local government. The city has the authority to enter private property in order to protect public health, safety or morals. This can be the health, safety and morals of yourself or of neighbors or the community as a whole. Since motor vehicles involve fuel, lubricants, chemicals, deterioration and rust, the government almost never encounters a successful challenge to code violations for junked cars.
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