Imagine you or a loved one is experiencing a medical emergency. You’ve called for help and now—after several minutes of anxious waiting—the EMTs (emergency medical technicians) have arrived. However, to your surprise and horror, weeks after that visit you receive a ticket in the mail. It turns out that one of the EMTs was also your town’s code enforcement officer, and he was taking mental notes of code violations all while he was supposedly rendering aid.
As inconceivable as that might seem, a code enforcement officer for a small town in Michigan is accused of doing just that. The Lansing State Journal reports that Daniel Richards served as both a code enforcement officer and a medic with Lansing Township for more than a decade. According to a federal lawsuit filed by one resident, “Mr. Richards has searched his properties without a warrant and visited his property due to emergency medical situations and ended up citing him for a code compliance violation.”
While it may seem shocking, that lawsuit may be on shaky legal ground. An EMT, first responder, or any other government agent has the legal right to enter your home without a warrant if they’re providing emergency assistance. And under current case law, they can look around and note violations while providing that assistance. That not only undermines Americans’ protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, but it also creates a danger for residents. After all, an EMT’s sole job is to save lives. When they wear multiple hats like Mr. Richards, the duplicity destroys public trust in the institution. And it makes people leery to call for help when they or a loved one are experiencing a medical emergency. People shouldn’t have to think twice before calling for help, and they definitely shouldn’t have EMTs looking around for finable violations when they’re supposed to be easing their pain.
But there’s an easy fix. Cities and state governments should enact legislation to keep EMTs focused on the job at hand by preventing them and other first responders from serving as code enforcers while responding to emergency calls. There’s a time for enforcing the municipal code, but that time is not when you’re responding to residents’ calls for help.
Issuing fines during a person’s moment of weakness is not just morally wrong, but an abuse of a service Americans can’t afford not to trust. State and local leaders must address this problem so Michiganders can have confidence that the people sent to save their lives will in fact focus on that task, rather than looking for tickets or fines to issue them in their time of need. EMTs should be focused on saving lives: not searching for code violations.