Saturday, October 27, 2007

Obedient or Overzealous?

About a week ago, I woke up to a dispute raging right outside my back porch. My landlord and a gentleman who later came to represent himself as an employee of the federal government from the Census Bureau, were locked on a hot debate over whether the agent of the federal government had a right to access a person in our building, with the full acquiescence of my landlord. The census agent snuck in the side door and came up the back stairs to try to access this young woman's apartment. As a result, this little dispute took place well within earshot, earlier than I typically like to stir on Sunday mornings. I decided to mediate, in an attempt to put an end to such a rude awakening, but also to get some peace and quiet so I could squeeze another hour of sleep out of my morning. The discussion that followed raised some interesting points.

As a preface to the following, I will note that it is, in fact, illegal to refuse to answer census questions. Section 13 of the United States Code controls, at the basic constitutional level, the operation of the Census Bureau. Interestingly, the Census agent was demanding access to the resident in the apartment he was pursuing. While I understand that there are penalties for failing to participate in a census inquiry, this person was not only sneaking into an area of my building only residents have access to, when he was discovered he demanded access to the common area inside the building and to some degree demanded access to the apartment where the resident lived. All of these demands were made under the auspice of federal law. Interestingly, the previously cited code section fails to provide this right in any explicit or implicit manner. My sense is that some obscure corner of the code of federal regulations contains this language creating this "right of access."

In a basic sense, this right of access likely does not exist, at least to the extent that this gentleman claimed. The Constitution still presents an inherent barrier to this kind of inquisition. He appeared to not only demand access to the common areas of my apartment building but also to the resident's apartment. That, on its own, is repugnant. To think a federal agent can have a right to access a person that any other state actor fundamentally lacks is downright comical. While I will submit it is likely possible that this person has an "right" created by an administrative rule to obtain access to the common areas in my building, there is no law capable of amending the Constitution by legislative or administrative fiat the way he represented. When I pointed out this error, he became angry, making claims that he would get lawyers to write letters. My response was to send federal agents with a warrant issued by a federal judge to justify the access he was requesting. This comment basically ended the exchange, because at this point he started to figure out that he was dealing with a lawyer.

Ultimately, the argument ended with an agreement that he would have a government lawyer send a letter to my property owner explaining this right of access. At this point, my property owner would give my landlord permission to let the guy into the common area of the building so that he can knock on this resident's door. In the event that she isn't home, he is out of luck entirely.

This entire situation raises some interesting questions about what kind of power the government thinks it has. I can tell anyone I have a legal right to do something, but that doesn't mean my statement is supported by law. It is more likely than not that this rhetoric works on the unassuming American. Does this mean we don't ask enough questions of those representing governmental authority? If anything, it shows we shouldn't be so quick to give in when someone with an official name badge starts talking about the law. The need to question everything a government official says these days is omnipresent, especially if we have Presidential Candidates would ask their lawyers for legal permission to start a war before asking Congress.

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