The U.S. Homeland Security Department, established after 911, was obviously created to prevent terrorist attacks. Although the effectiveness of the department is still uncertain, self-storage operations are feeling an impact.
Storage facilities are considered potential terrorist-staging areas because they provide space in which questionable materials can be stored and transported with little threat of detection. Most facility managers pay little attention to what tenants store in units, unless they see something like a 55-gallon drum emblazoned with skulls and crossbones.
Ignorance is not bliss in this industry, especially when it comes to the law. In fact, if a facility was used as a terrorist staging area, a strong argument could be made that limitation of liability was waived by inaction of a facility operator.
This is particularly true with facilities providing 24-hour access and drive-up units vs. multistory units with lobby and hallway access. The best-case scenario for a terrorist is the ability to drive directly to a unit in a rental vehicle, and unload explosives without anyone noticing. Although some facilities boast closed-circuit cameras, dangerous substances are easily disguised and stored.
Are You a Target?
Facilities are often located near critical infrastructures such as buildings of national significance and public-gathering spaces. These commonplace areas are often targeted for planting and detonating what are known as improvised explosive devices, commonly planted in cars in overseas terrorist action.
Self-service storage facilities with vehicle storage are extremely susceptible to this threat either as a storage area for a planned attack, or as a potential attack site.
Eyes Wide Open
The Homeland Security Department has outlined behavioral indicators that signal potential threats. Review the list with managers, making it part of your regular training program. Look for:
- Cash customers.
- Requests for 24-hour access or any unusual off-hour access.
- Long-term prepayment.
- Suspicious behavior in proximity to any employees or security personnel.
- Abandonment of unused, suspicious items after leaving the facility. Personal and physical indicators also can alert you to risk.
- Suspicious identification.
- Unverified telephone information.
- Unverified address information.
- Physical damage on the person, i.e., burns and scars with irrational or non-credible explanations about injuries
All staff members should be trained to take steps to minimize risks. First, always inquire about a customer’s need for storage. Some new tenants offer unusual explanations when pressed for more information. This is clearly a clue that should be reported to the proper authorities.
Scrutinizing information prior to renting a unit, such as requesting a second form of identification, is certainly permissible, particularly if the first ID is questionable or suspicious. Always verify telephone numbers and addresses. If they can’t be verified, don’t rent the unit; report the information to the appropriate agency.
In addition, make routine sweeps of the entire facility. Be cognizant of odors or unusual sounds emanating from a unit. The sweep should include the garbage areas for any suspicious discarded items. Also, it’s permissible to view inside stored vehicles for any unusual contents.
If you have closed-circuit cameras, be on the lookout for movement of unusual items. A key monitoring marker is a customer spending excessive time in a unit with little or no property moving in or out. Check your access records because routine visits to a particular unit off hours signals something is awry.
You might want to consider adding new security products to your site. The technology these days—DSL, cable modems, cameras, gate access—affords owners and regional managers an opportunity to review multiple camera views on one screen any time, day or night. These were historically expensive, however, prices have come down and technology has vastly improved. Remote viewing is a standard for many facilities, using movement-sensitive cameras. Create a budget for security and see what’s available. You might be surprised to find you can afford several new safety features at your site.
The U.S. Constitution protects the privacy of citizens, and your customers are no exception. In general, this means the government and law-enforcement agencies seeking access to a unit or the contents of a file or computer database can only be secured after issuance of a proper subpoena.
Should a government agent of any kind come to a facility and request access, the best way to handle the situation is to overlock the unit in question and print out files for safekeeping until officials obtain subpoenas.
The subpoena is a legal document detailing what the police or other authorities are authorized to do (view the unit, take possession of property in the unit, break the lock, view or copy files, etc.) A subpoena can only be issued by government officials to access private information if authorized by a government agency or judge. This is the constitutional protection as well as the expectation of privacy. To protect yourself, request to see the original subpoena with the judge’s signature.
Simply reporting suspicious activity doesn’t constitute an invasion of privacy. Anything that occurs in the open (namely outside of someone’s residence or office) is reportable if in “plain view” to the public. The other exception is commonly known as exigent circumstances; examples are when an individual is about to flee, a crime is about to be committed or is in process, or “evidence” is going to be removed from the jurisdiction. If you overlock the unit pending receipt of the subpoena, you can eliminate exigent circumstances and further protect your business.
Around a year ago, a facility operator in New York was taken to court on the claim of discrimination. The facility refused to rent a room to this individual, mainly because of the suspicious items noted above. The New York State Self Service Storage Association participated in the process with the facility operator. The determination was that if guidelines for renting units are established in advance and adhered to, there can be no claim of discrimination.
The practical solution, of course, is to post signs and provide notices about what the facility accepts as valid ID with the reservation of rights that the unit won’t be rented unless management in its sole discretion is satisfied that prerequisites are met.
These guidelines protect your facility, but also your duties as a citizen. The first World Trade Center attack in 1993 was carried out by someone who used a self-storage unit for staging and had rented a truck from the facility as well. Could your facility be next? Will you rent a truck to a terrorist?
Protection of your facility from terrorists is vital for the protection of U.S. citizenry. Meet your moral obligation by staying on guard at all times and reporting questionable activities to appropriate government agencies.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is not intended to provide legal advice and no attorney-client relationship exists. Specific legal questions should be directed to your attorney.
Kenneth M. Piken has practiced law for more than 25 years and is the senior partner in New York-based Kenneth Piken & Associates. Mr. Piken was general counsel for the New York Self Storage Association for more than 15 years and participated in drafting and lobbying a New York lien law. He will be addressing the topic of homeland security at the Inside Self-Storage Summer Expo in Reno-Tahoe, Nev., July 24-27. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org visit www.pikenlaw.com.