Iowa City Moves Forward on Disorderly House Ordinance

By Gregg Hennigan & Jillian Petrus

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By Jay Knoll

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa City may soon have a new way to go after hosts of wild house parties who try to avoid the police.

The City Council voted 7-0 Tuesday night on the first consideration of an ordinance amending the city’s nuisance rental property regulations to allow for a civil citation for disorderly house when occupants do not answer the door.

Currently it’s handled with a criminal complaint, but occupants — typically college students — are increasingly refusing to open the door for officers, city officials said.

In those situations, a search warrant would be necessary to get inside, but that could take a couple of hours, if it's successful, and police Chief Sam Hargadine said that wasn’t a good use of his officers’ time.

Council member Terry Dickens said he did a ride along with police one night and saw officers knock on an apartment door for several minutes with a party going on inside.

“It was very frustrating for me to sit there and watch the officers to try to get someone to answer the door," he said.

City staffers asked for the change because they want a way to get to an intervention process they say is successful at stopping problems.

Currently, if there’s a disorderly house and there’s a criminal complaint, that triggers a letter being sent to all of the tenants and the landlord. A second complaint results in a mandatory meeting.

Last year, there were 175 first-time offenses, eight second offenses and no third offenses, said Doug Boothroy, Iowa City’s director of housing and inspection services.

City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes said that if the ordinance is changed and a police officer encounters a disorderly house but can’t get anyone to answer the door, he would tell the city’s housing inspectors he has grounds to prove it’s a disorderly house, and that would trigger the municipal infraction process. There may not necessarily be a citation, however, depending on what staff finds out and the response from the violators, she said.

In a criminal citation, only the people present at the party would be charged, Dilkes said. With a civil infraction, all of the tenants could be cited.

Greg Bal, supervising attorney for the University of Iowa Student Legal Services, said last week he believes that would violate someone’s right to due process.

Iowa City Attorney Christopher Warnock, who was not at the meeting, also warned the city might be walking a fine line with due process.

"It’s fine as long as these tenants get the opportunity to come in and say, ‘No, it wasn't me. I wasn't there,’ ” Warnock explained.

Boothroy has said tenants would get that chance in court.

Iowa City resident Jean Walker said in an interview that house parties were big problems before city leaders started to fight back against the noise.

“You might go over and talk with them, and they'd quiet down, then a few minutes later it'd start up again,” she said.

A civil infraction would carry a $750 fine for a first offense and a $1,000 fine for subsequent offenses.

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