ST. GEORGE – On Tuesday, city officials met with St. George attorney Aaron Prisbrey who has threatened to file a federal class action lawsuit against the City of St. George on behalf of his client, St. George resident Jeff Rowley, along with thousands of other St. George residents. Prisbrey said he believes the people of St. George have been subjected to illegal code enforcement penalties since 2003. The meeting followed close on the heels of a code-enforcement hearing on Monday in which the administrative judge, Brian Filter, ruled that pictures taken of Rowley’s backyard by code-enforcement administrators violated Rowley’s Fourth Amendment rights, and were not admissible as evidence.
As discussed in a recent St. George News column, Prisbrey contends that, since 2003, St. George code enforcement administrators have conducted thousands of illegal property inspections, levying massive fines against homeowners for what are sometimes minor zoning infractions. The illegal inspections, Prisbrey said, are a matter of policy for the city, citing St. George Ordinance 1-12A-16, which states that code enforcement administrators are “authorized to enter upon any property or premises,” and that a search warrant is necessary only if the property owner explicitly forbids officials to enter the property.
According to a letter sent by Prisbrey to St. George Attorney Shawn Guzman, the ordinance allowing warrantless property searches “is a blatant violation of Fourth Amendment protected right against unlawful warrantless seizures.” Prisbrey said he believes that more than 3,600 St. George residents have likely been subjected to such illegal searches. Prisbrey said that he bases this number on code enforcement administrator Jeff Cottam’s testimony in an earlier hearing where Cottam estimated that he enters private property in 20 percent of his investigations
“There were approximately 9,000 “Courtesy Notices” sent out in the past five years,” wrote Prisbrey in his letter. Prisbrey also wrote that, in the 10 years since the ordinance was adopted, there were likely double that number, or 18,000 citations handed out by the code enforcement division.
“Assuming that Mr. Cottom’s testimony is correct and 20 percent of all searches of property are done without a warrant,” Prisbrey said, “we should have a class of approximately 3,600 citizens who have been affected.”
“We have to wait until we hear back from the city before we file the lawsuit,” Prisbrey said. He has agreed to work to reach a settlement with the city, if possible, and has stated that he is willing to drop the case, provided the city repeal ordinance 1-12A-16 allowing enforcement officials to cross property lines without permission, and if the city agrees to reimburse all residents who have been cited as the result of illegal investigations.
Prisbrey is one of the founding members of a group known as the CAITS Institute. According to their facebook page, CAITS stands for Citizens Against Incumbent Tyrannical Servants, and that the group is “committed to eliminating government oppression at the local level in Southern Utah.” CAITS Institute recently garnered attention at the Dixie Round-up Rodeo Parade by outfitting a bus with signs stating “Dan Must Go!” alongside a picture of St. George Mayor Dan McArthur. CAITS Institute has stated that they believe McArthur’s 25-year tenure as mayor has left him out-of-touch with the voters who put him in office. A recent posting on the institute’s website states that “the problem with lifetime government officials is that they forget they are public servants and turn into bullies.”
“I don’t approve of CAITS Institute’s tactics,” wrote City Councilman Jon Pike on a post on the CAITS Institute Facebook page. Pike, who is running against McArthur in the upcoming mayoral race, has rejected an endorsement from the CAITS Institute.
Pike, along with the rest of the City Council, is working closely with Prisbrey in an effort to prevent the potentially costly lawsuit, which has not yet been filed. Pike said that he is confident that a settlement will be reached within the next few weeks.
Marc Mortensen, assistant to the city manager, is also hopeful that the city will reach a settlement with Prisbrey.
“Both sides are working together to address the issue and the discussion yesterday was positive,” Mortensen said on Wednesday.
According to Prisbrey, the City Council will be discussing the terms of the settlement in a closed session this afternoon. If an agreement is reached, it is still unclear what the settlement will ultimately look like; however a recent statement from Pike may give an indication of which direction the council is heading.
“I’m willing to look backwards to see if there are cases in which we inappropriately went on people’s property,” Pike said. “We should consider reversing those cases and reimbursing the fines.”
- Letter to the Editor: St. George fear squad bullies meet Citizens Against Incumbent Tyrannical Servants
- ON Kilter: Fine line between dissension and anarchy; threat of class action against city
- Perspectives: Anarchy is looking better all the time
- Bad medicine: Shelter report shadowed by questions
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