Law Enforcement April 1, 2012

The Tip Of The Spear: Law and Order (and REALTORS)

by James Stefanile, ABR, GRI, SRES, QSC, REALTOR-Salesperson, Prudential NJ Properties

I read an article in my local paper recently where a contractor, working on an old local house, found some WWII grenades in the basement.  Who does he call immediately?  You guessed it – the listing REALTOR who called the police who called the bomb squad who called the US Army Ordinance Disposal Unit.  A spear of law enforcement and emergency service responders, a spear tipped by a REALTOR.

I got a chuckle out of this article and it reminded me of my own brushes with the law – no – not the bad kind of brushes – the kind where law enforcement and real estate merge.  An unusual facet of my profession.

My most vivid recollection is of a few years ago when I was just sitting down for dinner at a local restaurant and my phone rang.  On the other end was a friend of mine, a police officer whose house I had sold.  It seems there had been a stabbing at a local park and the police had followed a string of leads which made them believe their stabbing suspect was holed up in a local home which was – guess what – for sale.  I anticipated his request even before he asked if I could open up the keybox and give them the key to the house.  “You bet I will!!” was my immediate response.  The idea of crime and punishment all mixed up with my rather prosaic profession was more than I could resist.  I told the waiter to hold my order till I returned and took off for, what I hoped would be an exciting episode of “Cops”.

When I arrived at the scene I was met by a bevy of the biggest human beings I had ever seen, law enforcement officers, all in helmets and body armor and armed with shotguns.  This was better than I had ever imagined it could be!  My friend greeted me gratefully and I asked if I could have a helmet or, maybe, a Kevlar vest.  “No” was all he said and I’m sure I saw the hint of a smile but it was nighttime and his face was partially obscured by his helmet.

We all waited around while the lead officers consulted by phone with the county prosecutor’s office.  They wanted this to go down by the book in the event it turned out to be a murder case so there would be no technical snafus in the prosecution.  They also debated probable cause and the pros and cons of using my keypad to gain entrance to the house.  So, while we waited,  I chatted with my new, gigantic, armored friends who were all very interested in tips and info about the real estate market.  Talk about live leads!

Finally, the homeowner returned (also the suspect’s parent), and consented to the police entering the house.  DRAT!  I was not destined that night to lead a squad of marauding police to bring justice to an evil-doer.  They, in their armor and weapons, and me in my off-the-rack suit and keypad.   I slunk back to the restaurant after being profusely thanked by all my new buddies and had a heck of a story to tell the waiter.

In hindsight, there’s an interesting issue of due process and the role of REALTORS as agents of law enforcement.  I’m not going to debate this issue or make it the centerpiece of this post because I’m willing to help the police any way I can if I feel the need is warranted and correct.  The night of my big adventure, the police and the county prosecutor took great pains to explain to me the laws involved and the process behind them and to emphasize that my cooperation was entirely voluntary.  I had no disagreement with anything I heard.  I never did find out the resolution of that case.  The police, as you may know, are notoriously tight-lipped about ongoing investigations and even my friend couldn’t discuss it.  I gave him a good-natured earful about how he could drag me out to a crime scene at the drop of a hat but wouldn’t indulge my morbid curiosity.

Interestingly, there have been a number of times when my activities as a REALTOR have intersected with law enforcement.   I have sold houses to FBI agents and Secret Service agents (tough customers, as you can imagine).   And then there is the inevitable house alarm that the listing REALTOR forgets to tell me is armed when I’m showing a house.  I unlock the door and am met by screeching alarm sirens and, in short order, police at the door, occasionally with guns drawn.  I have a standard response.  I stand at the front door, arms raised, my business card in one hand and my real estate license in the other.  The responding officers are sometimes annoyed but most often amused at my distress.  Once, in a foolishly playful mood, I asked “Please don’t shoot me, I’m just the REALTOR!” to which, the smiling constable replied “We always shoot the REALTORS”.  Very funny.

Another time, on a stormy Saturday I set off to do a listing presentation for a customer who had solicited my by phone.  When I arrived, the person answering the door had no idea who I was, had not asked me to come and told me the person who called me did not live there.  In my defense, I did not set off blindly into that appointment.  I had researched the tax records and double checked the information I got on the phone from my shady lead and it all checked out – why, I was about to find out in short order.

A few days later two detectives from the county prosecutor’s office showed up at our offices asking for me.  My broker, who happened to be there, came into my office to fetch me and only half-jokingly asked me what I had done.  The sleuths explained to me that the person who had called me was a relative of the people whose house I was summoned to.  They found me because the homeowner had my card and forwarded it to the police when that elusive relative, allegedly,  burned down the family business.   The alleged arsonist was, indeed, on the deed of the house I had been to and was, evidently, locked in some sort of dispute with the rest of his family.  A dispute he was certainly not handling very well.  The detectives positively grilled me about my contact with this individual and, at that point I thought it wise to have my broker sit in on the meeting.  I was not very helpful because I knew so little.  Finally, the two officers took their leave, dangling the possibility of a future subpoena (which never occurred).  I never found out the resolution to that case and my broker admonished me to be more careful qualifying my leads.  Thanks a lot.

Then there’s the time an asbestos removal company was working in the basement of one of my listings.  They, evidently, worked into the evening and the nosy neighbor next door crept up to the basement window and saw a man with a big plastic bag putting something in it and immediately assumed the vacant house was being robbed.  You guessed it – police show up, guns drawn and have to break down the cellar door because the workman inside couldn’t hear their commands – he was listening to his iPod (at high volume, one would assume).  The situation got resolved but the homeowner (the executor of the estate) almost came physically through the phone line to chew my head off the next day.  I patiently explained that I had no control over his neighbors and that he had authorized the work.  I also had to corroborate the terrified workman’s account of why he was on the premises to the police.  For my trouble I also got chewed out by the owner of the asbestos company.  It turns out, evidently, that asbestos is harmful in more ways than one.

Just recently I got a message from a local detective asking for a return call regarding one of my properties.  It seems the owner wanted to press charges against someone (no details – it’s too recent) and the detective was soliciting any context information I might have.  Once again, I was as helpful as I could be with my limited first-hand knowledge of the situation and that was that.  I always wonder why I feel guilty when speaking to the police, even when I have no reason to be.  My guilty conscience, I guess, gets the better of me.

I’ll close with one more, I hope, amusing anecdote before I get criticized for being long-winded.  I once called a law enforcement officer whose house I was selling in order to get a signature on the proposed Contract of Sale.  I heard gunfire in the background and asked if this was an inconvenient time to talk.  Quite the contrary, it turned out, and I was invited to the police firing practice range where the contract could be signed.  When I arrived and we had concluded our business, my seller asked me if I’d like to squeeze off a few rounds.  What do you think I said?  YOU BETCHA!!!  I was given some earplugs and, as we approached the targets, my friend announced to the assembled officers that I was a REALTOR.  They all smiled and waved.  When I was handed the Glock, those same officers all dived for cover and laughed and laughed.  I still have the target.  I did pretty good, too.  So, the next time I’m the tip of the law enforcement spear I’ll be able to say I’ve been trained by the best.