LONGMONT, COLO. - Longmont Police are blaming the Longmont Housing Authority for creating confusion over a plan to search low-income rental units at The Suites community for drugs.
The head of the Longmont Police Department, Mike Butler, insists officers did nothing wrong when they went along on mandatory landlord inspections to ask if they could search for drugs, but they won't be doing that anymore.
As Kyle Clark said, "You don't give up your constitutional rights when you live in subsidized housing."
The decision was made after Butler saw a letter about the inspections, sent to The Suites residents, in a Next report.
That letter warned residents of The Suites Supporting Housing Community of a "notice to enter."
"Please note that we will occasionally have K-9 units with LPD accompany us for purposes of training and compliance. Apartments will be chosen at random," said the letter.
Late Thursday, Next learned that an internal investigation is being conducted by Longmont Police based on information provided by a tenant. That tenant said she refused entry to an officer and the K-9, but the officer still came inside after building management told her they were allowed to look inside, just not look inside any drawers.
In a statement provided to Next, the Longmont City Council wrote:
"Longmont City Council is deeply concerned about the allegations of wrongdoing at the Suites. We are committed to investigating the issue to get to the truth.
While we await the findings of the investigation, we want to express our support to Longmont Public Safety staff for the difficult work they do to keep our community safe.
We pledge to protect the civil rights of all our citizens."
Based on Next's interview with the Chief on Wednesday, "training," "compliance" and "random" are not entirely truthful.
"The Longmont Housing Authority management got concerns expressed from the residents of The Suites, where this happened, about potential drug possession, drug activity, drug sales, and there was also an overdose (death) related to the drugs in The Suites about a month-and-a-half ago, so the fear was relatively high within The Suites itself around drug activity," said Butler. "They did identify a few people where they had reasonable suspicion based on what residents said there, based on specific apartments or specific units within the Longmont Housing Authority, and those were the ones that were looked at about a month ago."
Searches planned for this week were called off after the media attention.
DECISION TO END SEARCHES
In a statement on Wednesday, the same day the story garnered national attention from the Washington Post, Longmont Police explained they decided it was best to end the searches because the letter to tenants doesn't make clear that searches are voluntary.
It was incorrectly reported that the police were conducting illegal searches. The source of this misinformation can be traced back to a letter that the Longmont Housing Authority sent to residents stating, “Please note that we will occasionally have K-9 units with LPD accompany us for purposes of training and compliance.
*Next asked the City of Longmont if they could point to inaccuracies in our reporting. A spokesperson said no.
The Longmont Public Safety Department informed the Housing Authority they would only assist them with this process with assurances that individual constitutional rights would be honored, with the purpose of making the residents of the facility feel safe, and sharing information about the Public Safety Department’s Angel Initiative (addiction treatment services).
Public Safety Leadership was made aware of the letter from the Longmont Housing Authority to the tenants of the Suites Tuesday afternoon. Given that the letter did not convey the conditions set forth by Longmont Public Safety, specifically those conditions related to protect an individual’s constitutional rights, leadership made the decision not to participate in this process.
There was never any intent or violation of constitutional rights. The police department has not arrested anyone or confiscated anyone’s property and has not conducted any searches without the consent of the individual, as related to this issue.
Like many police agencies across the country, Longmont Public Safety receives calls about possible illegal drug use almost daily. Each case is unique but the one constant is the understanding of constitutional rights. Longmont Police Officers are highly trained and understand case law as it relates to 4th Amendment Search and Seizure.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST MONTH
One tenant says she didn't consent to a search of her apartment, but police went in anyway.
Constitutional rights are not forfeited when a person lives in subsidized housing, just like 2nd Amendment gun rights are sacrificed when a person accents a farm subsidy, or the right to free speech isn't lost just because someone in college takes out a student loan.
Legally, Longmont Police don't need a warrant to search public housing with a drug dog, as long as the tenants gave their consent, either because they were fine with the search, or didn't know they could refuse, or they feared losing their housing if they asserted their constitutional rights. The letter to tenants from the Housing Authority about mandatory landlord inspections didn't say that the drug search was voluntary.
Last month, some tenants did get visits from Housing Authority management and police. Longmont Police say that's the only other time they've tagged along on inspections.
"We only agreed under the idea that we would not violate, nor would they violate, anybody's Constitutional rights," said Butler. "We made it quite clear that we needed permission to go in."
Tamika McClure told Next that she was in bed when her apartment was chosen last month.
"We have inspections to see if our place is clean. I opened the door and I saw two cops and a K-9," said McClure. "I refused to let the cops in, but one of the owners said I had to. I had to step outside, while they were searching with the K-9."
She said her complex manager told her that police were allowed in without a search warrant, but were not allowed to open any drawers to search.
She said the dog "picked up on something" in two drawers in her bedroom.
"I had to open them so the manager could look in our stuff and make sure there were no illegal drugs," said McClure. "(Management) couldn't touch our stuff, they just looked in the drawer."
She said she doesn't have any drugs, not even marijuana, and that nothing was found.
The Chief, who says only the K-9 team knew about these searches, said that his department's involvement was never about making a bust.
"We were in a non-enforcement mode. We were not necessarily interested in seizing drugs or arresting anybody. We were mostly interested in insuring that the Housing Authority was safe," said Butler.
The Chief said that he was told of a K-9 getting a "hit" on a unit from last month's searches.
"At one point, one of the K-9 alerted on something. We didn't do anything about it. We just told management that there may or may not be something there and we walked away," said Butler. "We were quite clear on our intentions with people why we were there, and so we wanted to make them feel as comfortable as we possible could with us. What we were trying to do and what we weren't trying to do. We weren't coming at it from a Constitutional -- we're going to arrest, we're going to seize, Fourth, Fifth Amendment issues -- we were coming at it from a perspective of how can we make this place safe and how can we refer people to the Angel Initiative."
The Angel Initiative is a program that Longmont Police offer addicts to help in their recovery. It offers no-cost to low-cost treatment, job opportunities and community support.
"Our Angel Initiative is a program in which someone walks through our front doors and says, 'I have an addiction and I want treatment,' we will find them treatment," said Butler.
Butler said he was told that any unit an officer searched last month was not refused entry by the tenant.
On Tuesday, the director of operations of the Housing Authority told Next that if someone were to refuse the officer's entry into their unit, that would raise eyebrows.
"If there is concern, it kind of sparks some curiosity for me," said Krystal Winship Erazo, who, a day after our original story with her, will no longer take our calls. "You know, what are they concerned about if (the officers’) only job is to ensure there aren't drugs in the unit?"
"Everyone has the right to deny us entry. Everyone has the right to be silent. Those rights are sacred and meaningful and it means nothing to someone's guilt or innocence," said Butler. "Our intent was not to take any criminal action. Our intent was not to make arrests or seize any drugs or any contraband."
None of the interactions were recorded by police because Longmont officers to not wear body cameras.
Democratic State Rep. Jonathan Singer lives in Longmont and rents an apartment. He said if an officer showed up at his door with his apartment manager, even he might second guess his rights.
"Even as a lawmaker and as a renter, if my manager shows up with a police officer and says, 'Hey, we'd like to take a look around,' I would be so flabbergasted and flat-footed, I would probably open up my doors, and I have to say, that's not the way it should be," said Singer. "Our renters aren't just lawmakers, they're regular day-to-day workers, and you know what, I'd be afraid that I'd maybe get my rents raised, I'd be evicted, I'd have some sort of adverse action taken against me."
Butler acknowledges that while - by law - tenants had to let in the housing authority landlord in, people could be confused about whether they have to allow in an officer and drug dog.
Attorney David Beller of Recht Kornfeld, a former public defender who led the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, explained it.
"The Longmont Housing Authority is in fact a government agency, and so that means the 4th Amendment protections apply both to them and the police ... Clearly this was wrought with problems. This is a clear violation of the 4th Amendment of the warrant requirement, and it's important that the Longmont Police Department did the right thing, which was to simply step back and not subject themselves to anymore scrutiny or possibly, a civil suit."