If the new Iowa City disorderly house ordinance passes two more readings, not answering your door will no longer be an option to avoid potentially paying a fine for having a raucous party.
The Iowa City City Council unanimously voted Tuesday to approve the first of three readings on an ordinance that if passed would allow the city to use its already existing nuisance rental property regulations to charge the offending tenants with a civil infraction if they cannot be contacted to be charged for a crime.
The ordinance would also allow police and housing inspection services to issue a letter warning the tenants and their landlord about the potential consequences of a disorderly house violation even if under their judgment they choose not to file a civil complaint against the tenants.
Disorderly house complaints have been traditionally handled by an officer either issuing a warning to the tenant or tenants responsible for the party. For more serious or repeat offenders, the officer would issue a criminal citation for disorderly house, a simple misdemeanor.
However, savvy partiers have tried to get around this possibility of a criminal charge by never answering the door once the officers arrive for the noise complaint, requiring the officers to get a search warrant if they want to enter the residence.
Doug Boothroy, Iowa City’s Director of Housing and Inspection Services said this is not only vexing for police, it prevents what comes next, the aforementioned letter to the tenants and landlord that is sent out after a criminal citation is made. After a third offense, which he said is rare, a meeting is made with the city officials, the landlord, and the tenants where it is made clear that the tenants could eventually be evicted if they continued to pick up more disorderly house violations.
"If the police are not able to wait around for a search warrant they can't issue a criminal complaint, and if a criminal complaint isn't filed the process doesn't get started," Boothroy said.
Boothroy said getting the letter out is important because it has a huge effect in cutting down on repeat offenders. Last year, there were 175 first-time offenses for disorderly house, after the follow up by the city there were only 8 repeat offenders, and no three time offenders.
Boothroy said that one of the large components of this new ordinance is it provides the city more options to trigger the warning process early and educate tenants before a residence becomes a repeat problem.
Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine told the council that the disorderly house violation is always a judgment call made by an officer, and avoiding a citation could be as easy as just answering the door and being polite to the officer.
"The demeanor of the person who answers the door can make a difference on whether they get a ticket or not," he said.
Hargadine also said that forcing officers to get a search warrant late at night would not be the answer. It would often require waking up a potentially irate judge late at night, and would not only give the officers the right to enter the residence, it would also give them the right to knock the door down to speak to the tenant.
"I'm not sure that I want my officers to do that for this sort of offense," Hargadine said.
City councilor Terry Dickens said that he had been on a ride along with police officers when they arrived at an apartment where the tenants refused to answer the door after a loud noise complaint.
"It was really frustrating for me to sit and watch officers try to get someone to answer the door," Dickens said. "It seems like a big waste of time."
City attorney Eleanor Dilkes said the nuisance law was expanded for this purpose because authorities would not want to charge the tenants with a criminal offense if they couldn't prove they were in the residence. With a municipal infraction, the burden of proof is lower, so each of the tenants can be charged.
Whether or not the a civil charge is filed will depend on the discretion of the police and housing inspectors, and could include past history at that residence.
Dilkes said the cost of civil infraction will be $750 for each tenant, and $1,000 for every subsequent offense.