CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – The government of a Midwest college town is now requiring the city’s businesses and apartment buildings to post their keys outside, so authorities can enter the properties “in case of emergency.”
According to the Cedar Falls City Council, the plan to require property owners to post keys in designated lockboxes – that city officials can open with a master key – is a justified way to allow the fire department and other authorities access without breaking down doors, especially in cases of false alarms.
To many Cedar Falls citizens, however, giving the city keys to their businesses and homes is a gross violation of the Fourth Amendment’s private property rights and a plan fraught with potential for abuse.
“What gives you guys the right?” asked resident Judd Saul at a May 23 public hearing on the plan. “This opens a big can of worms into the intrusion of our private property and our rights.”
“Apparently this box is going to be universal, and that’s going to have everyone’s apartment keys,” posited an unidentified citizen.
The discussion led resident Carol Hanson to ask, “What if a key is stolen?”
The unfunded mandate, known as City Ordinance 2740, had already been approved in two of the three council votes needed to enact it, and was given final approval tonight by a 6-1 vote.
Councilman Nick Taiber, the lone dissenting vote in the last meeting, explained his objection: “I think that we have not duly considered all the privacy and Fourth Amendment issues that come along with having the keys of your business or to your home on the front of your property.”
Saul, a leading opponent of the proposed ordinance, told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier he believes the measure is unconstitutional and, “If it does pass, we are going to file a lawsuit.”
Back in 2004, the city adopted a similar ordinance that requires the boxes for commercial buildings and apartment buildings with six or more units. The lockboxes, installed at an estimated cost of $250 to $500 by the property owner, are located on the outside of a building and contain the keys to gain entry. The fire department, then, keeps a master key for accessing the lockboxes in case of alarm or fire.
The Courier reports Fire Chief John Schilling said at an earlier hearing that he has seen no evidence of such lockboxes being abused, and that in Cedar Falls, only seven supervisors in the fire department would have access to the key.
“There are thousands of cities around the country that have lockbox ordinances,” Schilling said.
According to the Courier, the 2004 ordinance saw “little resistance” to its passage. Ordinance 2740, however, would expand the mandate to apartment buildings with as few as three apartments and comes at a time when citizens have become increasingly aware of government encroachment on individual liberty.
“This seems to me to be a slippery slope,” Hanson objected at the May 23 meeting. “First you’re talking about commercial buildings, then I hear triplexes, then duplexes, then it could go to single-apartment dwellings, and then who’s to say it would not go to residential?”
Councilman David Wieland answered, “This in no way is intended for private homes. If it were, I would vote against it, and I’d be the first to sue on constitutionality.”
One particular exchange between Saul and Councilman John Runchey at the May 23 hearing captures the crux of the debate:
“I believe it is our right to protect the citizens the best we can,” said Runchey, “and that’s one of the roles of government.”
But Saul objected, “Giving up our rights for your idea of what’s best protecting us is unconstitutional.”
“That is something that will be decided by a higher authority than you or I [sic],” Runchey concluded.
Yet another citizen replied, “The constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people; it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government.”
A video of comments made at the meeting, assembled by those who object to the ordinance, can be seen below:
If the third reading of the ordinance is passed at a planned meeting tonight, it becomes law.
Meanwhile, Saul is leading a drive to advertise his opposition, bring others to tonight’s meeting and circulate a petition.
“We’re pounding the pavement full force getting that petition started,” Saul told the Courier.