How to deal with police and other government officials–what is the association’s obligation?

Welcome to another entry in our How To Series!  Today, I’m going to talk about how to deal with inquiries from police officers and federal agents.

In any large community, dealing with visits from police and other government officials can be a daily activity.  This is especially true in condominiums, where hundreds of people live together in very close proximity.  Police officers will often stop by to serve process on a unit owner, or to follow up on a criminal investigation.  Code enforcement officers will need to check for municipal violations.  Maybe you’ll even get a visit from someone in the IRS looking for a tax evader.  One thing I’ve learned from years on the board is you should never assume anything is too weird to happen.

As a basic rule, it’s important that associations are cooperative with law enforcement officials.  You rely on these officers to protect the community and your property–why wouldn’t you want to make their jobs as easy as possible?  However, by the same token management has a responsibility to protect the privacy of its residents and their basic, constitutional right to avoid unlawful searches and seizures.  It’s a careful balance.  I want to start by telling you a story that just recently happened in my own community (handled perfectly by our staff, I might add) and then touch on some of the situations you may encounter in your own neighborhood.

Last week, a man went to the front desk of our building claiming to be from the Attorney General’s office.  According to our staff, he flashed a badge quickly and then began asking the front desk staffer questions about our security system–where were the cameras, how many were there, where were the entry and exit doors.  Weird questions, to be sure.  The front desk attendant correctly asked the man to speak to our property manager, at which point the officer turned around and quickly left the building.

Red flags all around!  What would you think if a man walked into your building, claimed to be a state officer, flashed a badge and then started asking questions about building security?  I’d hope you were suspicious that the building was being cased for a robbery.  Our manager immediately called the police department, who told us that the incident sounded a lot like something that happened at a neighboring condominium a few months ago (only that person was posing as a police officer).  We filed a report and told everyone to keep their eyes open.  I opined to my property manager that we’d probably never see the guy again.

Fast forward to the next morning, and he shows up again!  This time the man is carrying a sidearm, which is a significant escalation of the situation.  On this day his story is a bit different, and he wants us to give him access to our garage to look for a particular car.  The front desk person (same as the day before) again asked the gentleman to wait for the property manager, and he again left immediately–but this time we wrote down his license plate number and called the police.

This is where things got a bit weird–the police checked up on the plate, and it turned out that the man was ACTUALLY an officer from the Attorney General’s office!  A woman from the AG office called us very upset that we had twice inhibited the investigation of her officer, and she claimed that the police department was very upset that we had bothered them.  Of course, that wasn’t at all true.  The police were very complementary of how we handled the situation, and told us that we should do the same thing each and every time anything similar should happen.

So this was simply one of those very weird situations (remember, weird is normal in shared ownership communities) where an officer of the law decided to be abrupt, pushy and just generally not do his job in a manner that was respectful of the rights of our residents.  What are some of the things we learned from this incident, and are there any tips I can give you to apply at your own community?  Of course there are!  What kind of a blog would this be otherwise?

1)  Get your manger:  Law enforcement officers making official requests to serve process, review documents, examine commonly-owned property or anything else in the furtherance of their duties should be greeted and assisted by a management-level employee.  Our front desk officer was absolutely correct to insist that the person wait to speak to our manager.  Now, what if a police officer shows up in the middle of the night claiming a crime is in process and lives are in danger?  Frankly, in that situation they’re not going to let you stall, even if it means breaking down doors.  But in the case of a normal, 9-5 investigation, the property manager (or at worst assistant manager) should always be the lead association representative.

2)  Ask for a business card:  So here’s a tip from a bunch of security experts I spoke with.  We’ve all seen movies where a criminal flashes a fake badge to gain entry into an otherwise secure building.  Most law enforcement badges can be easily bought on the Internet, or even from stores that specialize in producing badges.  Unless you really know your stuff, most laypersons would never be able to tell if a badge is real or not.  So ask for a business card!  Official government agencies often have special cards embossed with the department name, and criminals rarely go to the trouble of reproducing these cards for a quick con.  If you ask for the agent or officer’s business card and they refuse, that should get your spider sense tingling.

3)  Ask for warrants or subpoenas where appropriate:  If a police officer wants to enter into a unit to conduct a search, they generally need a warrant.  If they want to investigate the books and records of the association, they need a subpoena.  My general philosophy is that community associations and their staff should attempt to be as helpful as possible to police officers–after all, these people are putting their lives on the line to protect your property.  But by the same token, there are basic constitutional protections in place that prevent unlawful searches and seizures, and if an association violates that right by allowing an officer to enter a private unit without a warrant, they better have a really good reason, or there’s going to be a lawsuit.  You should consult with your attorney about management’s rights and responsibilities when it comes to allowing searches of units, searches of association documents and investigations of common elements.  Associations DO have a right to allow police officers to investigate common property (like garages), so assuming that the police officer is being respectful and doing his job appropriately I see no reason not to assist.  However, in a situation like I described above, where a government agent was not providing the association with appropriate information about his investigation, I would not recommend being as accommodating.  Our own association has a very good relationship with our local police department, and we try to help them out whenever we can.  However, that being said we’ve always had an issue at the building with service of process, as our elevator vestibules are owned elements–they are technically part of each individual unit.  So we can’t let the police officer into the vestibule to knock on the door of the unit–if we do, we are allowing an officer to enter someone’s property without a warrant.  This quirk of our building has created tension for us in the past, but I think we’ve come to an understanding with our process servers that it’s something we simply can’t allow.  We’ll let them spend as much time as they want in a common element like the garage or lobby, but we won’t grant them access to someone else’s private property.  Again, this is something you need to review with your lawyer.  Have him write up guidelines for your management and security staff, and make sure those guidelines include when your association can provide access to documents and information, and exactly WHAT documents and information are fair game.

4)  Be skeptical:  Management’s number one responsibility is to protect the property and protect residents.  Sometimes, that means being extra skeptical of people who claim to be law enforcement officials.  It’s terrible that in this day and age you can’t trust that someone is always what they claim, but there have been countless examples of fake police officers gaining entrance into private residences to commit crimes.  So always ask questions!  A real officer should have no problem letting you look at their badge, or a business card, or to even call their superior officer to check their pedigree.  If they hedge, you have to be a little concerned.  Now true, sometimes it’s just an officer in a rush, or perhaps one who is having a bad day and doesn’t want to be bothered by a skeptical property manager at some damned condo.  But you know what?  Tough noogies.  Private citizens have every right to protect themselves, and that includes making sure that police officers, persons with much greater legal access to our lives than any other citizens, are who they say they are.

As I said at the outset, police and federal officials are very important to shared ownership communities, and management should do it’s best to have a strong relationship with anyone that enhances resident security.  But by the same token, there are rules that need to be followed when investigations are conducted, and no one should be allowed to push private citizens around.  Be helpful, courteous and respectful, but also expect the same in return.

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