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Reports have been circulating that landlords must grant census workers access to buildings they own. In other words, if you rent an apartment — or even a house — from someone, the census workers supposedly can force the landlord to let them into your residence even in your absence so they can snoop through your stuff and collect information about you.
It’s just like China or the old Soviet Union. The government shows up and demands access, and the landlord hands over the keys. When you get back home they’ve ransacked your house and know not just your name, race, age, sex, ethnicity, and favorite brand of ice cream, but everything about you, including your bank account balance, cash balance in the cookie jar, and internet passwords. Of course, they’d never share that information with other government agencies, though.
There was a time when I wouldn’t even have looked into this. I would have dismissed it immediately as a wacky conspiracy theory, but that was before “they” passed the McCain-Feingold bill. It was before “they” took blood samples from my newborn baby in spite of my stated objections and without a warrant (“they” do this routinely in my state with every newborn baby). It was before I understood how much “they” have eroded our God-given liberties. I’m less naive now.
One of the advantages of being a lawyer is that I’ve been trained to interpret statutes, and to predict how courts will interpret them. Here’s the text of the statute in question, 13 U.S.C. Section 223:
Whoever, being the owner, proprietor, manager, superintendent, or agent of any hotel, apartment house, boarding or lodging house, tenement, or other building, refuses or willfully neglects, when requested by the Secretary or by any other officer or employee of the Department of Commerce or bureau or agency thereof, acting under the instructions of the Secretary, to furnish the names of the occupants of such premises, or to give free ingress thereto and egress therefrom to any duly accredited representative of such Department or bureau or agency thereof, so as to permit the collection of statistics with respect to any census provided for in subchapters I and II of chapter 5 of this title, or any survey authorized by subchapter IV or V of such chapter insofar as such survey relates to any of the subjects for which censuses are provided by such subchapters I and II, including, when relevant to the census or survey being taken or made, the proper and correct enumeration of all persons having their usual place of abode in such premises, shall be fined not more than $500.
We’re concerned with the phrase “or to give free ingress thereto and egress therefrom.” Does this refer to the apartment complex or the apartment itself?
The rest of this chapter in the statute gives us a clue. The statute delineates a method by which census information is collected, and that is by asking questions either in person or by providing a written questionnaire, not by obtaining documents or any other physical evidence from a residence. Nowhere that I have found is a census worker authorized to enter a residence without permission.
The landlord must grant a census worker permission to go door-to-door on the premises where his tenants live, nothing more. If a census worker asks me to let them into a rented apartment or house under the authority of this statute, I will simply refuse.
As far as I know, the Census Bureau itself has not taken the position that it can enter your rented residence without your approval. That’s not to say it never will; after all, the way the census itself is conducted is already unconstitutional.