Long before the events of 9/11, the self-storage industry faced law-enforcement officials appearing unexpectedly at rental offices for various reasons. Generally, a police officer or member of a federal law-enforcement agency walks into your office, flips open a leather badge case with what purports to be a police ID, and flips it shut before you are ever able to recognize or read the items presented. Then he starts asking you questions.
Most frequently, police are interested in storage of drugs or drug-manufacturing paraphernalia, stolen property, or property in dispute between two parties. Since 9/11, self-storage facilities have become the target of more investigations from terrorism-interception organizations. The situation tends to scare or intimidate managers or staff who have no training on how to handle these types of actions. It is exacerbated by the fact the law-enforcement officer will sometimes challenge an employee's patriotism or law-abiding emotions to get the information he needs.
The fact is law enforcement can have all the information it needs or wants, but there are proper ways to ask for or receive it--whether or not you wish to turn it over. This article addresses when you have to provide information, what type of information to give out, and what to ask for before you do so.
Warrants and Subpoenas
Sometimes law-enforcement officials are attempting to gather information to build a case against a person. They come to you to see if some of their hunches are correct. You, on the other hand, have a file in which your tenant has provided names, addresses, contact information, copies of photo IDs, and possibly bank references, credit-card numbers or credit reports. I am not suggesting you be uncooperative with law enforcement. However, providing this information without the proper documentation from the officer can result in liability to you. There is a right and wrong time and process to provide this information.
Generally, the law-enforcement officer wants to see a tenant file or open a unit. In the case of the tenant file, your first question should be, does he have a subpoena or search warrant? In the case of opening the unit, does he have a search warrant? If the officer has a subpoena or warrant, generally, you have to make the information available or give the access stated. You do, however, have the right to see the warrant and make a copy for your files; I strongly recommend you do so.
You also have the right to look at the officer's badge and identification card, although he does not have to let you make a photocopy or write information down. You can at least ask for a last name, badge number and the department with which the officer is affiliated. Before taking any action on a warrant or subpoena, or even talking to the officer, you can and should call the department to verify his identification and purpose. All good law-enforcement agencies will provide you validation if you call and ask, "Officer X is in front of me. Can you give me a description of what he is supposed to look like?"
You have to make certain the search warrant allows the officer to do what he says he wants to do. That is, if the search warrant says the officer has the right to search unit 48A, all you can do is give him access to unit 48A, even if the tenant has other units in his name. You do not have to assist the officer in lock-cutting, lock-picking or otherwise gaining access to the unit. However, it is my experience that if you do not assist, he will probably damage your door. Therefore, if you are presented with a valid search warrant--especially if you have cylinder locks--assist in the picking, drilling or removing of the lock. Once you have given the officer access to the unit, give him privacy. When the officer has completed his search, ask if it is acceptable for you to overlock or relock the premises.
If the search warrant or subpoena commands presentment of documents, you are obligated to provide copies. Never part with your originals! There is only one exception to the document rule: If you have pulled a consumer credit report on your tenant from one of the credit-reporting services--TransUnion, Experian or Equifax--and you do not have a release from the tenant that allows you to provide the report to law-enforcement agencies, you may not give a copy or even allow the officer to view it.
There are special privacy laws that apply to individual credit profiles, and you must protect them carefully. This is normally not a problem, because all police agencies have agreements with credit-reporting services to allow officers to obtain copies of an individual's reports when necessary for a criminal investigation. Therefore, you simply say, "I cannot, by law, give you the credit report; but of course, you can obtain your own copy." There are few instances in which a law-enforcement agent will give you any hassle about refusing to turn over a credit report. Most of the time, he is looking for information from the application or lease. Oftentimes, he simply needs the unit number or numbers to get a proper search warrant.
When There Is No Warrant
The more difficult situation is when a police officer does not have a search warrant or subpoena but wants to talk to you or obtain copies of information from your tenant file. This is a tough call. You have already asked the law-enforcement officer for a copy of a subpoena or search warrant and he has told you he does not have one. You cannot simply turn the file over to the officer. However, as stated above, sometimes officers have to follow hunches in criminal investigations. They may not have enough information to ask a judge for a warrant or subpoena and need more proof to show there is valid suspicion.
As a law-abiding business owner, you may not want to interfere with these types of investigations. On the other hand, turning over your tenant files without a subpoena or search warrant can expose you to potential liability for violation of privacy. Therefore, explain to the officer that while you are not able to turn over copies or allow him to examine records without a warrant or subpoena, you are happy to answer as many questions as possible, in conversation, so there is no exchanging of documents. Therefore, if the police simply want to know an emergency contact or unit number, you can open the tenant file and tell him. If the officer wants to know banking or credit-card numbers, or what Social Security number the tenant gave you, you can, if you choose, provide the information.
There is a fine line here. First, police officers do not like to be told they cannot have something they want. They may even try to coerce or cajole you into releasing records without a search warrant. But all good police officers know there are proper ways to obtain information, and there are dangers involved in giving information to anyone who flashes a badge. There are consumer-privacy laws that vary from state to state; and on the federal level, there is the consumer-privacy law that pertains to an individual's credit profile. If you give information to any governmental authority who seeks it, you may violate your tenant's privacy rights and be subject to a lawsuit.
Second, you want your tenants to be completely and accurately candid with you in the application process so you have the valid information you need to meet obligations imposed by self-storage statutes. This includes information about alternate contacts, lien holders, etc., which is required by various statutes around the country. If your tenants think you may share information without proper authority, they may withold. You need tenant's information so you can properly operate your business and conduct lien processes, if necessary.
Third, although regrettable to say, there are some police officers who use their badges for purposes of conducting their own personal business. Remember when NYPD Blue's Dennis Franz checked to see if his best friend's wife was squirreling away assets in a self-storage unit? Unfortunately, police officers do sometimes help themselves, their friends and relatives to information under the guise of an investigation. If you were to fall victim to such a ploy, you would be liable to your tenant if determined as the source of information. Additionally, there is always a question of the validity of identification and a badge until you verify it.
Build a Relationship
There are a couple of things you can do to build a relationship with local law enforcement. For one, you can ask them to drive through your facility on occasion, especially at night. Driving through and observing potential criminal activity on which the officer can act without management's involvement is a blessing. Second, you can allow police to use your facility for drug/bomb dog training; you admit police to allow their dogs to sniff the locked doors of units. If the dogs react positively for drugs, explosives or other items, the police can then obtain a search warrant.
It's understandable to desire a positive relationship with law-enforcement officials. You want your facility to be patrolled. You want to ensure police or city officials do not "hassle" you with zoning violations or other minor issues. You also want to make certain law enforcement responds quickly to your calls.
However, privacy laws dictate you cannot simply be a stool pigeon. All law enforcement agents--up to and including prosecutors--have clear standards they must follow to make a verdict stick. You, as a small business operator, face the threat of a civil lawsuit if you violate a tenant's privacy. You have to be prepared to explain this concept to law-enforcement, despite the fact they may pretend not to understand. In a relationship of mutual respect, the law should be able to obtain the information it needs without asking you to compromise your business.
Jeffrey Greenberger practices with the law firm of Katz Greenberger & Norton LLP in Cincinnati, which primarily represents owners and operators of commercial real estate, including self-storage. Mr. Greenberger is licensed to practice in the states of Ohio and Kentucky, and is the legal counsel for the Ohio Self Storage Owners Society and the Kentucky Self Storage Association. He is a regular contributor to Inside Self-Storage magazine and the tradeshows it sponsors. For more information, Mr. Greenberger can be contacted at Katz Greenberger & Norton LLP, 105 E. Fourth St., Suite 400, Cincinnati, OH 45202, or by calling 513.721.5151.