What to Do if You Suspect a Tenant is Storing Illegal Drugs

Jon Fesmire | Nov 20, 2017 @ 09:29 AM

This is a tricky subject for any self storage operator, and for many reasons. If you think one of your tenants is storing illegal drugs, what can you do? First, if your suspicion is correct, they’re violating their terms of service, since illegal items are automatically prohibited items. Second, the illegal nature of the offense means that you might want to call the police, especially if the tenant is dealing drugs, rather than just using them.

There are three stages to dealing with this problem. We’ll call them Informing, Observing, and Acting.

Informing

In a non-intrusive manner, get the message to your tenants that you are serious about certain items being prohibited, and that tenants who break the rules face eviction or legal action. How do you do this without sounding threatening? Simply by presenting information.

For example, your tenant contract will have this information. It no doubt already says what is prohibited and what actions your facility will take if it is discovered that a tenant has items that break the contract in their unit. The thing is, many people either don’t read the contract at all, or just skim over it. When you go over the contract with new tenants, let them know what each section stipulates before they sign.

Also, you should have a tenant information sheet, which they can read at their leisure. When you give it to them, remind them to read it on their own time. It should include directions for inputting their code to get in and out, hours of operation, rules about noise levels, information about the types of units you have, and so forth.

Make sure that it also covers information that will make any unscrupulous tenants think twice before engaging in any illegal activities on your site. Include a section that outlines how robust your security system is, and that it includes cameras that record all activity outside the storage buildings and in the hallways. Plus, it should explain that you deal quickly with tenants storing prohibited and, especially, illegal items.

Sometimes, tenants will want certain other people to be able to access their self storage unit, and it’s up to them to decide who gets a key. The tenant information sheet can also inform them to only give a unit key, and the gate access code, to someone they know they can trust, such as their spouse. Make sure they know that if a third party with gate and unit access appears to be doing something illegal or is behaving badly on the property, you will have them removed and revoke their access.

In addition, you may want to have signs reminding tenants that the property is under surveillance, with statements like, “Cameras monitored 24/7.” These steps serve to assure tenants that you take their safety and the safety of their belongings seriously, and to discourage anyone who might otherwise break the rules.

Observing

Of course, you, your employees, and a security company, if you employ one, will be keeping an eye on the cameras, watching who comes in and out of the facility, and responding should an alarm go off.

Observing also means listening to customer concerns and noticing strange activity. They may glance into someone’s unit and notice something that doesn’t belong there. Is a tenant going into their unit, then meeting people on the street outside? They may be dealing drugs they have stored in the unit.

Acting

One thing you can do is wait until the next time that tenant comes to the property, then head to the area where their unit is with a broom. Walk by their unit and ask in a friendly voice how they’re doing. Don’t make it obvious that you’re checking up on them. It should look as if you’re just doing some cleaning. Note how the tenant responds. If you notice something suspicious in their unit, write it down back in the office.

If they act in a suspicious manner, keep track of their gate access. Are they letting a second car through? Are they hanging around for a long time, or displaying other suspicious behavior? Give them a verbal notice to not behave in such a manner on the property. After the third notice, you can serve an eviction letter.

It’s tough getting hard evidence that someone has drugs in their unit. If you do have strong evidence of drug or other illegal activity, you must have it documented, with photographs, before you contact the local sheriff or police. They need this in order to get a search warrant. At that point, it will be out of your hands. They will be able to do their own surveillance of the tenant, while keeping you and your facility out of it. It should appear to the tenant, if they do end up being found to be keeping drugs in their unit, that your facility had nothing to do with it.

Once it has been shown by the law that there are illegal substances in the unit, work with the police on things like restricting the tenant’s access and starting eviction procedures.

With marijuana becoming legal in many states, you will have to decide what you will allow at your facility. It’s standard to disallow live plants, so, regardless of the laws in your state, you should not allow people to grow marijuana in their units. However, perhaps you would allow a marijuana dispensary to store packaged stock in a unit, or for a tenant to keep a few ounces. Whatever you decide, the same rules should apply to all adults who can legally possess pot.

Just make sure that you follow the law and don’t enter a tenant’s unit illegally. It can be frustrating when you suspect that a customer is keeping contraband in their unit, but there’s no reason for you to get in legal trouble.