In United States v. DeTurbiville (2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 23321), the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion that looks at the search-and-seizure rights of self-storage customers. This criminal case provides storage operators some guidance as to their customers' rights when rent becomes delinquent. It also demonstrates what can happen when tenants provide unit access to a third party. The question before the court was whether a search of a storage unit violated the tenant's constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
There was no question the tenant's rent was past due when the police searched his unit without a warrant, looking for illegal weapons. The trial court ruled the tenant's failure to pay rent constituted an abandonment of the storage unit, and he did not, therefore, have standing to challenge the search. But the court of appeals disagreed. It noted that while rent had not been paid, the self-storage facility owner had not taken any steps to deny the tenant access to his storage unit as permitted by the California Self-Service Storage Facility Act. The court concluded the mere failure to pay rent was not sufficient to indicate the tenant had abandoned his storage unit.
However, while the court of appeals ruled the tenant had standing to challenge the search, it held the search was lawful because the police had been given access to the storage unit by an acquaintance of the tenant. The tenant's friend had a key and unrestricted access to the unit. The court concluded that when a tenant gives another person a key to his storage unit, he assumes the risk that person may consent to a search of the unit by law-enforcement officers.
The court's ruling is important because customers frequently give keys and gate codes to friends and family members. When a key and gate code is given to a third party, it gives rise to the assumption the tenant has authorized that person to enter the storage space. The court of appeals came to a similar conclusion in this criminal case, deciding that by giving a key to a friend, the tenant conferred broad powers on her, including the power to act contrary to the tenant's best interests.
The risk of an unfortunate result from giving out keys and code numbers appears to fall squarely upon the tenant. When he provides a key and a gate code to another person, he assumes the risk that the person will not necessarily act in his best interest. Here, the friend consented to a police search of the storage unit. Another danger is the person will simply remove the contents from the storage space. Tenants should be aware of this potential risk.
This article is based on one that appeared in the May/June 2001 issue of the Self Storage Legal Review. It is used with the permission of the publisher, the Self Storage Association.
D. Carlos Kaslow is an attorney in Berkeley, Calif., and is the founding partner of the Self Storage Legal Network and author of the Self Storage Legal Review, a bi-monthly newsletter covering self-storage legal issues. He is also general counsel for the national Self Storage Association. For more information, visit www.selfstorage.org.