The Common Law

Can the City Inspect My Backyard?

Can the City Inspect My Backyard?

I am curious about the authority of city code enforcers with regards to backyard inspections. What constitutes probable cause and how can I tell if my rights are being violated?

The Code Compliance Department investigates violations of certain City of Austin ordinances. Violations fall within three categories: property maintenance and illegal dumping, zoning, and dangerous buildings and housing. A complaint from a neighbor is all that is necessary for a city code inspector to inspect your property. Generally, a neighbor calls 311 to report a violation, and the complaint is routed to a city code inspector in your district.

A city code inspector may enter your property only with your permission or a search warrant. Without either, an inspector may only view your property from the street or sidewalk. If your backyard is fenced, an inspector may not lift a camera over the fence or take a picture through a hole in the fence to view or document any violations. However, if a neighbor (such as the one who called in the complaint) owns a deck or a second story, an inspector may view your property from those locations with the neighbor's permission.

For property maintenance and illegal dumping violations, the Code Compliance Department will issue a notice of violation unless you have been issued a notice within the previous year for the same offense. You may appeal a notice of violation within seven days after the notice is given. If the violation is not remedied, a citation will be issued and the Code Compliance Department has the authority to fix the problem and send you a bill.

To learn more about the Code Compliance Department of Austin and common code violations, visit www.cityofaustin.org/code/compliance/default.htm.

Please submit column suggestions, questions, and comments to thecommonlaw@austinchronicle.com. Submission of potential topics does not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information submitted is subject to being included in future columns.

Marrs, Ellis & Hodge LLP, www.jmehlaw.com.

The material in this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You may wish to contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a non-profit public service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or www.austinlrs.com.

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