Threatening behavior by code officers

by William lagrow
(Hall county ga.)

Visitor Question: Three code officers came to my place, carrying weapons on the first visit. All of my permits are up to date. For zoning and planning, all is in order. I live on a small farm. I am a 66 year old male on disability.

They came on my property jimming a secured gate. They were pounding on my door intimidating me. They threatened to arrest my son for filming their actions. Is this legal?

After their first visit, I had a spinal fusion unexpectedly. This has slowed me down. They have harassed me twice. There was no argument out of me until I had an injections procedure to help control my pain. The day after that, I asked if we could talk another time because I was in pain. To which, he said for me to come out of my house right then. So I called 911 about him threatening me. Then he wrote me up for violations.

I'm building a 2 story pole barn on the front of my property. All is approved. They told me I had to keep my materials to build with on the back of my property. He has not told 5 other building projects to do anything.

Please suggest a plan on what my rights are. Thank you.

Editors Reply: This sounds like a very unfortunate situation in which the code enforcement people need to calm down. The goal of code enforcement should be to obtain compliance and nothing else.

Let's break the situation into parts so we can comment on it.

As for the officers being armed, in some places sworn law enforcement officers also handle code enforcement. We haven't heard of code officers without law enforcement training being allowed to carry weapons, but of course it is possible.

In terms of entering your secured gate, we would judge the appropriateness of this behavior according to what codes these officers were attempting to enforce. If they were enforcing the building code because you have a building permit for a structure that has not been finished, in many places this would be considered appropriate.

As for your son filming their activity, most code enforcement officers we know would view this as an extremely hostile behavior, but they would keep this opinion to themselves because they would recognize that he has every right to do this. We doubt they would have any grounds to arrest him. We think it was highly inappropriate for them to hint at this.

Certainly you are well within your rights to suggest that they talk with you another time, since you were in pain as a result of this medical procedure.

As for the code enforcement officers telling you to keep building materials on the back of your property, your local laws may well give them a fair amount of discretion in how they enforce keeping a building site neat and tidy. As we say on this site all of the time, it really isn't relevant legally how other people have been treated. But of course on a human level, we understand that it is very frustrating to feel as if you are being singled out.

To sum up our best advice for you, we cannot tell you exactly what rights you have, since we are not attorneys. But as planners who have experience with code enforcement, our number one suggestion is that you talk with both the supervisor of these code officers and with your elected official about these incidents.

In these conversations, be as calm and factual as you can. Begin with saying you need to understand the situation better; you can bring up your very real grievances later, but don't start off that way.

Ask the supervisor, who might be someone like a sheriff or police captain, to explain exactly what codes were being enforced and what violations were suspected. Also ask whether there was a complaint about your property. (Sometimes when someone who has a lot of local respect or power makes a complaint, we find that is when code officers tend to start off being overly aggressive.)

After you have discussed your situation with the supervisor of these people who visited you, ask them what they want you to do next. Listen to their answer carefully, and if it seems appropriate, we suggest that you follow that plan. If their answer seems silly to you, thank them for the conversation and walk away from it. You don't want to escalate the situation with the supervisor, because that is the person who has the best chance of helping you avoid threatening behavior.

Also talk with your city or county representative on a city or county council. Again, start the conversation factually, stating that you just need to understand better. This little bit of humility on your part will help to keep the conversation productive. Ask them why the officers came with weapons, why they opened the gate themselves instead of knocking on your door first, why they threatened your son for filming, and why you are being asked to store construction materials away from the part of the your property where the actual construction is taking place. The elected officials probably are not aware that any of this has taken place, so you are telling them a story that they need to hear.

It is unfortunate indeed that the threatened citizen has to be the one to start acting like an adult first, but sometimes that is the way it is. You don't want more arguments or violence, and the best way to ensure that doesn't happen is for you to act like a calm, reasonable, and responsive person. It sounds to us like there was considerable over-reach here, but of course we are not attorneys, not giving legal advice, and not on the scene. Your elected officials are the ones that ultimately can put a stop to this.

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