Local Commentary

Editorial: In the Name Of Privacy

Falls Church City officials and residents of the Winter Hill neighborhood should move cautiously toward an agreement that the City is pushing for to allow police to enter common-area parking lots of the Winter Hill Community Association members to check for delinquent vehicle decals.

No one is questioning the motives of the City in making this request, since it is only in an effort to make sure everyone is paying their fair share in local taxes.

Yet no one is suggesting that owners of free-standing homes in the City be asked to allow police to make the same kinds of inspections on their private property. That, as one Winter Hill resident suggested to the City Council Monday, is just not fair. Why should someone who has chosen to live in a smaller condo with shared common-area parking be subjected to a police search on his or her private property, and other citizens in larger homes not?

Also, the City is now in the practice of including police access to garages in new mixed-use projects for the same purpose. But such agreements are in place prior to a tenant leasing or renting a unit so that the tenant knows about this in advance. However, the proposed new agreement would suddenly change the rules for residents who may have been living in their homes for decades.

The other question goes to safeguards that should be established against police searches going beyond the limited examination of cars for decals, once an invitation to enter the private property is granted. In the case of the interior of a home, once a resident invites a police officer inside, that officer by law then has the legal right to search anything and everything in that home. Would the same apply to inviting police onto private property in a common-area parking lot?

Surely, there is no reason to believe the police would want to do this, except that there may be things that appear in an officer’s plain sight once on the property that he or she would not otherwise see. It would be an officer’s duty to act on suspected illegal or criminal activity or circumstances if that officer sees it, no matter what other constraints a formal agreement may provide.

Isn’t this a good thing, though, to expand the police’s ability to smoke out crime? It is a touchy question when it involves private property and privacy, more generally.

We are not against allowing the police to look for delinquent car decals on private property. But first, it is wrong to arm-twist residents with a quid pro quo involving an entirely unrelated matter. Second, all residents (and not just board members) should be informed in advance and be given a chance to weigh in on the new policy before it is adopted. And third, written into the agreement should be safeguards, to the extent possible, against police probing beyond the limited scope of the policy’s intent.