Service Without A Smile? Dealing With Subpoenas And Search Warrants By Elizabeth Ferrin

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    copSubpoenas and search warrants may be little more than a single piece of paper, but they carry a great deal of weight. What often starts with a mundane knock on the office door can end with a police officer or court official delivering a document requiring the immediate attention and response of the self-storage manager. Although somewhat frightening and intimidating, managers need to answer that knock on the door with a helpful hand, remembering that with a little foresight and preparation, they can protect the rights of their customers while upholding the rule of law.

    Understanding The Documents

    It is important to make a distinction between subpoenas and search warrants. A subpoena is a command that requires someone to appear at a certain date, time, and place to give testimony in a legal matter. Personal property may also be subpoenaed. “A subpoena for documents or records is mostly what self-storage facilities see,” says Jeffrey Greenberger, partner of the Cincinnati, Ohio based law firm Katz, Greenberger and Norton, LLP. “In fact, they are extremely common.”

    Generally, subpoenas do not require immediate action. This lack of immediacy gives managers ample time to contact the owner or management company as well as the attorney for the self-storage facility. It also presents managers with an opportunity to organize and photocopy any documents listed in the subpoena.

    Search warrants, on the other hand, require instant action. These documents are issued by a judge and allow the police to search a specific person or property for evidence of a crime. It may also allow the police to remove this evidence from the self-storage facility. Since searches usually begin immediately after serving the warrant, there is little time for a manager to react. This means a good plan must already be in place so that managers can make appropriate decisions and ensure they are following company policy during such a critical time.

    “Prepare a checklist,” recommends Kenneth Piken, senior partner at Long Island, N.Y.-based Piken and Associates. “Everyone’s intimidated by a badge, so keep a checklist handy. Remember, these things all happen in less than five minutes.” Along with a checklist, managers should have up-to-date telephone numbers giving them 24-hour access to several key people, including the management company, owner, attorney, and insurance agent.

    When first served, managers should take the time to examine the documents. “Look at the subpoena or search warrant and make sure it’s for your facility,” advises Scott Zucker, an attorney specializing in self-storage with the Atlanta, Ga.-based firm, Weissmann and Zucker, PC. “Also, double check that there is, in fact, a unit rented to the person they are investigating. If it’s clean and they’re looking for part of a person’s file or they want to search a unit, be cooperative and assist law enforcement.”

    “Along with a checklist, managers should have up-to-date telephone numbers giving them 24-hour access to several key people, including the management company, owner, attorney, and insurance agent.”

    If the search warrant allows police to take business documents such as rental agreements or a customer’s personal information, remember to provide them with copies only. Never provide law enforcement with the originals. Also, be prepared to copy surveillance video from the computer or VCR to a CD or video tape. If managers are unable to provide copies, there is no way to stop the police from walking out the door with the self-storage facility’s computer hard drive.

    After looking over the warrant and making any necessary copies, managers should make every attempt to accurately record the event. If at all possible, photocopy the search warrant. It is also a good idea to write down the name and badge number of the police officer executing the warrant. Managers may also want to examine the police officer’s badge and photocopy their identification if permitted.

    “Create an incident report of the event,” says Zucker. “If police don’t object, take photos or video. If they are taking items from units, ask the police to inventory those items.” The key is to be as thorough as possible when recording the incident.

    Have Procedures In Place

    Once the proper documents are examined and copied, managers should address the logistics of the actual search. Currently, there is a great deal of debate within the industry surrounding the best way to access a unit during a search.

    “If managers are unable to provide copies, there is no way to stop the police from walking out the door with the self-storage facility’s computer hard drive.”

    “The company should have a policy as to whether the manager is going to cut the lock off, provide or assist the police with the tools to cut to the lock, or simply sit in the office while the officers enter the unit and possibly damage the door and hasp,” says Greenberger, who is quick to add that he does not suggest managers ever cut the locks themselves. “If there is a meth lab in the unit, cutting off the lock can cause a spark and ignite the entire meth lab.”

    Other industry professionals, however, are strongly in favor of managers providing assistance to the police with cutting the locks. “I am of the opinion that unless law enforcement has a bolt cutter and knows what they are doing, the manager should cooperate, even to the extent of helping to drill the lock off to avoid damage to the facility’s property,” says Zucker. He adds that when police are standing at the store’s front gates, a manager would never refuse to open the gate and would not stand by while officers drive their cars through the gate arm to get to the office door.

    “You want to be cooperative with law enforcement because the assumption is that they’re protecting the public,” Zucker points out. “There is a fear about cooperating, but if law enforcement tells you to open a unit, there are certain immunities that result from cooperating. If anything, a manager should not obstruct the instructions of the police.”

    With any scenario—recommending managers cut locks themselves, requiring managers to stay in the office, or advising managers to step back while police handle the entry and only help when necessary—managers should have a firm grasp of the company’s search policy. Of course, there are cases where the search warrant will call for a manager to cut the lock. In this instance, managers are duty bound to follow the warrant regardless of company policy.

    Once the search is in progress, managers should make an effort to keep other customers away from the area. They should also take pains to stay out of the way of law enforcement officials and remember not to touch anything. In general, the police will handle the situation and the managers need to follow their instructions. However, managers should also ask police to inform them once they have completed their search.

    After the search is over, it is usually the managers who are left holding the bag. Searches are often messy and disorganized and it is not uncommon for the tenant’s property to be left in the aisles. “The government is technically supposed to clean up,” says Piken. “But, I don’t think you’ll get too far asking the government.”

    Instead, managers generally handle the cleanup themselves. “Before doing anything, you’d better make sure the police are done and know exactly who you spoke to,” warns Greenberger. “Then, you can go ahead and do the cleanup. Of course, there is tons of liability with handling stored property. But moving it is one step better than leaving it out where it’s going to get stolen, stepped on, or blown away. You have to pick your poison.”

    Once the cleanup is done, the unit should be over locked and managers should ask the police for permission to contact the owners. If allowed, a letter should be sent to the tenants saying that their lock was cut off by the police and advising them to come into the self-storage facility. The company may also choose to bill the tenant for the cost of the new lock. If the renters do not come in, consider mailing them they keys the since a manager never wants to be in charge of a customer’s lock.

    If law enforcement does not want management to contact the renter, ask the police how to handle the situation if the tenant comes into the facility and asks about the new lock.  “It’s all scenario-driven,” says Zucker. “There are so many different scenarios of what can happen in these ordeals.” Managers should simply follow law enforcement’s instructions.

    Be Prepared!

    In this day and age, most self-storage managers will eventually find themselves coming face-to-face with subpoenas and search warrants. However, it takes only a little preparation to successfully manage the situation. With some research and training, managers can handle even the weightiest search warrants and subpoenas, work hand-in-hand with the police, and keep the self-storage facility safe and secure.

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