In the winter of 2003, I was out driving by properties that I was managing in Minnesota, checking to make sure the tenants were maintaining the exteriors. One of the properties was a four-plex building and the day I drove by was the trash pick up day. Ordinarily, there is nothing noteworthy about trash bags and trash bins at the end of the driveway on pick up days. That day, I noticed there were dozens and dozens of boxes scattered about the end of the driveway.
I decided to get out and gather the boxes and pile them together so the trash collectors would take them. I was a little surprised to find that just about all of them were empty and all of them were the same size. I flipped one around to read the text on one of the boxes and that is when I began to panic. I thought I was facing what no landlord ever wants to encounter . . . A tenant manufacturing drugs in the house.
All of the boxes were marked to have contained 24 pint size bottles of Isopropyl Alcohol. Someone had told me before that Isopropyl is one of the chemicals used to produce Methamphetamine. In other words, I thought I had stumbled upon a “Meth Lab” and was worried that it could explode at any time. Not only would an explosion destroy the unit but it would likely take out the other three units and, God forbid… Residents!
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t think a “suspicion” would legally justify entering the unit without giving the tenant 24-hours notice. In my mind, I started to think about all of the tenants who lived there and quickly determined which one of them had to be guilty. Lois Coleman (I am not using their real name) had been a problem tenant since I began managing the building. She usually paid her rent late, didn’t have a job that I knew of and when a resident made a complaint… They were always complaints about Lois.
I went back to the office and let the owner know what I had found and we both proceeded to pace back and forth for close to an hour while we tried to determine what we could and what we should do. Neither one of us wanted to even think of what the liability could be if there was an explosion.
Still not knowing the right thing to do, I called the police department where the property was located, which was somewhat of a small town outside of Minneapolis. I asked to speak with someone in the Narcotics Division. When they put me on hold, I joked with the owner that the person that answered the phone was probably running over to another desk to pick up the phone and use a different voice.
When I came off hold, I rambled to the officer about what I had found in the driveway and went on about not knowing how to proceed until they literally cut me off and asked for the property address and which unit. After I gave him that information, he asked me the name of the tenant. I replied, “Lois Coleman.”
The officer quickly said, “Ah… Lois.”
I nearly had an all-out panic attack with the realization that the officer knew Lois on a first name basis. The officer got my name and number and quickly told me he would call me within a few hours and hung up before I could ask any questions. The owner and I paced a trench in the floor while we waited to hear back from the police.
Less than 90 minutes later, the officer called back and calmly said, “You’re ok. There isn’t anything illegal going on in her unit.” Before I could say anything, he added, “If you suspect any illegal activity going on in the future, don’t hesitate to call us.” Before he could hang up I blurted out, “Wait! Hang on, hang on!” I said, “What do you mean, I’m ok? What happened? What did you do?”
The officer said in a rather matter of fact tone, “Oh, well I went out to the property and knocked on Lois’ door. When she opened the door, I told her that I think she is cooking Meth in her unit and asked her if I could come in and look around?”
I said, “And she let you?”
He replied, “Well, yeah.”
I was speechless as he explained further. He said, “Look, one way or the other we are going to find out if she is up to no good. She agreed to let me look around and I didn’t see anything to indicate that she was doing anything illegal. Had she refused to let me in, I would have put a squad car in front of the building and one in back and then I would have instructed you to inform her that you will be inspecting her unit and give her 24 hours notice. She wouldn’t get anything in or out without us knowing about it before you could go in to inspect.”
What that police officer told me that day continues to be the most effective method for finding out if a tenant is doing something illegal in the property and I have found that the police tend to keep an extra eye out for you as well.
That same day I called Lois on the phone and asked her what she was doing with all those boxes. She was very apologetic for causing the fuss and told me that she had been helping her mother move recently and she got the boxes from the hardware store after she asked the manager if she could have any empty boxes.
There never was an explosion but, I sure learned a lot that day.