When I heard about Columbia County Code Compliance Officer Jimmy Vowell walking into a Martinez woman’s home to serve a notice that her lawn was unkempt, my first thought was:
“When the hell did the county get the power to enforce grass-cutting?”
I mean, really; a couple of weeks ago we were losing our minds over the idea that the federal government could force everyone to buy health insurance. Shouldn’t there at least be mild puzzlement that the county government can fine you if you don’t mow your lawn?
Vowell, a former deputy, and now a former code enforcement officer, is perhaps one of the luckiest people in the world. If Erica Masters had been armed and willing, we could be reading his obituary. Pretty much everyone assumes that a stranger who walks into someone’s home, uninvited, probably isn’t delivering cupcakes.
Instead, Vowell was there July 2 to give the occupant a violation notice that her grass was too tall. He says he knocked and called out several times, but no one answered. The unlocked door swung open as he knocked, he said. He smelled something and “reacted on instincts telling me something was not right” as he let himself in, he said.
The knocks on the door and the stroll down the hallway of Masters’ home were captured on video surveillance, coming soon to a civil suit near you. There’s no audio, but it shows Vowell stop in the door of her bedroom, talk for a moment and walk back out.
She got up, got dressed and eventually met him in the living room, where he gave her the grass-cutting notice; she told him her mower was broken.
Masters called 911, and oddly, they sent Vowell’s supervisor instead of a deputy. She later talked to a sheriff’s office investigator, but the cops decided no charges were warranted because there was no evidence to show Vowell had any criminal intent when entering Masters’ home.
But there’s also zero justification for Vowell entering the home uninvited. Just take his story at face value; let’s say he really did smell something.
Marijuana smoke? Call the cops. A gas leak? Call the fire department. The decay of a corpse? Call the cops; it’s too late anyway. Smoke? Call the fire department.
If Vowell had found any of those things, we’d be reading a much different story – perhaps one in which, rather than Vowell violating the rules of his county job by walking into a home without permission, he’d be the hero who helped bust a drug den/thwarted an explosion/discovered a crime/saved a burning home.
Instead, the only thing we smell is the fishiness associated with a story that doesn’t remotely justify a county worker walking into a private home without permission – which is why he’s now an ex-county worker.
Besides: They’re only after your lawn today. Tomorrow you’re getting a ticket for that sink full of dirty dishes.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Email barry.paschal@newstimes online.com. Follow at twitter.com/