The City of Barstow's proposed rental inspection plan violates residents' and property owners' civil rights, all under the guise of "protecting" tenants.

Under a proposed city ordinance, all landlords of Barstow residences would have to register their properties and open them up to inspections by the city every two years to make sure they're up to snuff. Landlords would also have to pay $50 at the start and $100 for each inspection.

The plan seems relatively mild and Jeanette Hayhurst, city project manager for housing, has the best of intentions - to make sure renters aren't being subjected to squalid living conditions by uncaring landlords.

This ordinance, however, is unconstitutional, despite the fact that similar ordinances exist in other cities (Pasadena is apparently being used as a model). The Fourth Amendment states "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue but on probable cause... ."

There are two elements of the amendment to look at here. The first is that the search must be reasonable. If the city is presented with evidence that a home does not meet safe habitability requirements, then that's a reasonable reason to ask for a warrant to search a home.

However, the other relevant element in this amendment that the search must have "probable cause." There must be an honest suspicion that the residence is in violation of safety regulations. The government cannot simply go door to door inspecting people's homes to look for possible violations.

Let's extend the city's proposal. Many folks, especially those in government and law enforcement, feel that illegal drugs are a serious problem. Let us suppose then that the City of Barstow proposed an ordinance where the police searched the home of every family in Barstow annually to make sure they have no illegal drugs. And of course, we'd all have to pay a fee for the program.

What's the problem? If you don't have any drugs in your house, then surely you'd have no problem with police officers nosing around your private belongings. And the fee probably wouldn't be that much.

Most people would not accept this ordinance, and it would likely crumble under judicial scrutiny - at least in the current climate, though who knows what the future brings?

What the city is proposing is that all landlords and tenants shall be treated as though they are guilty of a crime and have to pay a tax to prove their innocence. This is not acceptable. Tibor Machan, Freedom Communications' libertarian adviser, pointed out after reading our coverage of the proposed ordinance, "People are being treated as if they were guilty of something (by being burdened with fees and such) - even though they haven't been convicted of a crime. In a free country, the mere possibility of wrongdoing does not justify being penalized."

We urge Barstow residents and landlords to stand against this proposed ordinance. The (alleged and unproven) possibility that this ordinance may help correct problem residences in Barstow is not an acceptable reason to erode our civil liberties. Tenants and neighbors as it stands can contact law enforcement about safety problems in rental residences if the landlords refuse to cooperate. This proposed ordinance is unconstitutional and unnecessary.