The Dominion Post  

Police talk rental ploy

Created on:   Mon, Mar 5, 2018   7:34 PM

Last modified:   Mon, Mar 5, 2018   7:34 PM

For The Dominion Post

MORGANTOWN — Westover police and apartment owners are working together to combat a complex front used to rent apartments for drug dealers.

Westover Police Chief Richard Panico said the front involved a female renting an apartment from a landlord with first and last month’s rent in cash and then disappearing later, only for others to take over the apartment.

“The girl that comes in tends to have a West Virginia driver’s license, or she claims to be a student,” he said. “At the same time, she’s all perky and positive, giving the landlord a good feeling. The next step is two months into it, we never see her again, but we see three or four guys living there.”

“They are active at night. Cars pulling in and out all night long. We’ve had them over here. There’s the dynamic. They know what rents a place. They know what they can do to get a place because people need that bottom line.”

Panico said sometimes the girl in question worked for different groups of people.

“This girl makes some money out of this deal, and she might do it five or six times within the course of a month,” he said “Especially when school starts.”

“Is it the same group of people? In one case, one girl was doing it for three different groups of people out of Columbus, Ohio. We got them all out of Westover. They scattered. I’m sure they are over in Morgantown now. But at the same time, the third time we caught them. We said, ‘Ok, this isn’t going to happen. We told the landlord and he got rid of the people.’ ”

Panico said part of the problem comes from an overabundance of beds in Morgantown and a need to fill rentals.

“I’ve talked to landlords about it,” he said. “They say, ‘Listen Rick, we appreciate your problem. But we have to survive. We have bills to pay.’ I understand the hound, and I understand the rabbit.”

Panico said the Westover Police Department has decided to take steps to help landlords run background checks on potential renters.

“Landlords can call us and we will do a background, run a name,” he said. “We’ve also encouraged landlords that as part of their lease, they should list everyone who is going to be in that dwelling. Give me a list of everyone who is going to be in the dwelling because anyone not on that list will not be allowed to stay there.”

“We actually go down and knock on the door and talk to the people in a lot of cases. We’ve had that here. We’ve had the situation where the girl disappears and the guys are there.”

Panico said the next step would be to talk to the men living there.

“So, we basically start hammering the guys. We knock and talk. ‘I think you are selling drugs. Tell me if I’m wrong.’ ‘You’re wrong.’ ‘We’re going to keep an eye on this house. Anyone that comes in and out of this house, we are going to establish as a target enforcement. Especially at night time. You have cars coming down at 2 or 3 in the morning. We are going to be stopping and talking to these people and finding out who they are.”

“If we establish a target area, and we say these are the steps we are going to take, as long as they are consistent, not applied randomly, we are covered. Any police officer can stop you any time at all to talk to you. We knock on the door and say, ‘We think you are doing crack in this house.’ ‘No we aren’t.’ “OK, we are going to watch the door and take license names. Within five minutes, everyone is gone. A month later, they are moved.”

Donald Knowles, a landlord with single-family house rentals in Westover, said he has not had trouble with this situation, but would use background checks offered by the city in the future.

“I just found out it was available a couple days ago when I was talking to Chief Panico,” he said. “I will certainly do that through him. That would be excellent. You can also do that sort of thing through the magistrate’s office, but they charge $25, and I think Chief Panico will run it for nothing.”

Panico said the process of evicting tenants, especially in a situation like this, could be complex.

“We’re going to go after this girl who rented the place?” he said. “All she’s going to say if we catch her is ‘Hey, I moved out. I couldn’t live there anymore, and these people took over for me.’ It still doesn’t change the same process. Just because you sublease to someone, which in this case would be a verbal sublease. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to go through the formal routine of evicting those people.”

“The primary thing we use to establish residency is mail. If the U.S. Post recognizes this as your address, you have to go get them evicted.”

Panico said this process could be long and costly for landlords.

“I still have to go through the process of evicting you,” he said. “I’m still probably going to lose a month’s rent. I’m still probably going to have to pay money for this legal process, and I’m going to get judgment against people, but these people have no identity. They probably aren’t from Morgantown or West Virginia at all. We find out they are from Ohio or Michigan. Things like that. We’ve actually started going back and getting enough information out that we have their drivers’ license, and we will even go back after their tax return. We started to establish that kind of pressure.”

Panico said another step the City of Westover has taken is to enact a nuisance ordinance to make it easier for landlords to evict problem tenants.

“I try to impress upon the young officers, ‘What’s stronger then criminal law? Administrative law,’ ” he said. “Contracts have more force than a legal concept of an arrest. So, we go for the administrative process. We’ve created a nuisance ordinance in Westover. If we go to the house three related times in a month, we approach the landlord and give it to them to correct. You have to take steps to correct this.”

“Even if they go to magistrate court, we support them with documents. We serve eviction papers for free. The county charges $65. We do it for free. We are trying to help the landlord clean up his property.”

Panico said the city tried to work with landlords to assist them in cleaning up their properties.

Brian Walden, a landlord with properties in Westover, said the nuisance ordinance and background checks have made it easier for all landlords to manage their rentals.

“I think the City of Westover, and the efforts of everyone in the city, with the nuisance law, it’s definitely making it easier,” he said. “It is positive. If somebody does that, you don’t really know until it’s too late. Then what do you got to do? You have to go and evict them. If you have the nuisance law, where they can just come in and condemn it as soon as they find out — that works perfect.”

Walden said he has a strict process of finding good tenants for his properties.

“A tenant has to fill out an application and give me their ID,” he said. “They have to have references, and then if they meet the criteria from that application, then they will have to fill out a lease.”

“That lease is 10 pages,” he added, “and thorough.”

Panico said the Westover police officers carry a lot of luggage from the amount of issues they deal with, but that they try to educate themselves and assist in any way possible in these cases.

“We try to do what we can, but there’s more in police work then most citizens think. There’s more into the planning and operation of what we do and how we do it as opposed to thinking, ‘These cops don’t do anything. They just drive around all day.’ No, each cop has a list of what they need to accomplish during the shift, whether it’s collect data, check on certain things, look at certain things, talk to certain people,” Panico said.

“There’s a method to the madness. Sometimes they just don’t see it.”