Drug dealing on your property is something that perhaps you'd rather turn a blind eye to. But it's serious business: Many jurisdictions in the U.S. hold landlords responsible for the drug-related activity of their tenants, if the activity takes place on the property. The exact nature of that culpability may vary, but it often includes fines and civil suits, especially if authorities have reason to believe that you knew about the activity but did nothing. In extreme cases, the government has even seized drug-linked rental properties from landlords.
If your tenants are dealing, growing, or manufacturing drugs on the premises, you need to know and take action as soon as possible. But it's a safe bet that your tenants are going to be doing their best to hide any and all illegal activity from you. What's your best course of action, as a landlord, to discover everything you can without illegally or unethically violating your tenants' privacy?
Look for Unusual Traffic
Sure, some people are just popular, or they host a lot of parties at their house. But if you see a lot of people trickling in and out of a residence, especially if it's at strange hours, that may be evidence that your tenants are dealing drugs on the premises.
As an additional note, it's not fair to judge the foot-traffic in and out of your residence in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic bracket, and other factors. Make sure that you're not passing judgment based on those factors. People of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, ages, and social backgrounds use and deal drugs.
Stay in Communication With Other Tenants
You don't necessarily have to be best friends with your tenants, but if you keep lines of communication open and maintain an open, friendly demeanor toward them, they're more likely to come to you with complaints or concerns. Are they smelling unusual odors on the premises? Are their neighbors getting a lot of visitors at strange hours? Are they seeing neighbors disposing of unusual trash? Have they ever witnessed, or been invited to participate in, drug use?
Remember that this is very different from asking your tenants to "narc" on their neighbors. You aren't going to them and asking them to spy on anybody, or turn their neighbors in to you or the authorities. Rather, you're just keeping an eye and an ear out for concerns as they roll in. This is something that stands to improve your abilities as a landlord or property manager in general, even if you don't suspect any drug use.
Look for Grow Lights by Monitoring Electricity Use
If electricity usage for a property is substantially higher than it was when previous tenants lived there (and assuming that your previous tenants were following the law!), it may be evidence that your current tenants are using energy-sucking grow lights and sun lamps to raise cannabis plants. Even if you don't cover utility bills, you may be able to get information about electricity usage on a property for the last 12 months by reaching out to the power company.
As an additional note, even in this era of compact fluorescent bulbs, grow lights are very hot. In colder climates, police check to see if tenants are growing marijuana in the attic by looking for roofs that are clear of snow, when surrounding roofs are still covered.
While it's tricky to discern if your tenants are manufacturing or dealing drugs, it's potentially even trickier to figure out how to proceed when you have hard evidence that they are.
Some drug users and dealers (though far from all) will protect their livelihood with threats and violence. On these grounds, if you have evidence that there's drug-related activity on your property, it's best not to engage directly with your tenants about the matter. Communication is key in most situations, but not here.
Instead, go directly to law enforcement authorities as soon as you can. Lay out your case and all the evidence you have, as clearly as you possibly can. By doing this, you've done your due diligence. If you're wrong, there's no harm done — your tenants may be prickly if a judge gives the cops a warrant and they search the premises, but they'll likely never trace it back to you. And if you're right, you've let the police know what you know, so they won't be able to bring charges against you and claim you were hiding evidence or impeding their investigation.
If you don't have enough evidence, or you don't want to bring things to law enforcement for any reason, don't forget that, in most jurisdictions, you're under no obligation to offer your tenants the chance to renew their lease. If you honestly suspect illegal activity but have no hard evidence, you can simply invite your tenants to move on.
Tenants using or manufacturing drugs on your property can greatly endanger your business. Not only is it a nuisance that may harm your relationship with your other tenants, but it can get you in hot water with law enforcement.
It's important to investigate and deal with any potential drug-related activity as quickly as you can. While it's delicate territory, if you keep your eyes and ears open you may be able to tell if your tenants are engaging in illegal activity. From there, you can take the appropriate steps to keep you, your business, your property and your other tenants safe.
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