Sheriff's program instructs cable, utility employees to report suspicious activity

dburley@islandpacket.comOctober 27, 2013 

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The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office is developing a program that encourages employees of cable and utility providers to report safety hazards and suspicious activity that they witness while on service calls.

But Sheriff P.J. Tanner is adamant his aim is not to send snoops into people's homes.

The program is still in its early stages, Tanner said this week, but its goal is "getting the utility companies on a front with us."

"They cover a lot of territory in the county," Tanner said. "They see a lot of things in their day-to-day work."

Tanner confirmed the Sheriff's Office has given a presentation to Hargray Communications, and Deputy Sally Irvin has talked to service employees at Time Warner Cable, according to that company's public relations director Scott Pryzwansky.

Tanner plans to speak with a half-dozen more companies in Beaufort County, he said, and added the program has been slow to materialize because officers in charge have been busy with other duties.

"Essentially, it was a neighborhood-watch deal," said Andrew Rein, Hargray's vice president of sales and marketing. "The Sheriff's Office is asking our employees to be aware of what's going on, of things that don't look right. If you saw something that was strange or didn't sit right, you'd call the police."

Representatives of both companies said they did not know if employees have reported any activity in the field since the seminar. Tanner said he would not comment on the success of the initiative because the program has not been finalized.

At Hargray, deputies held a training session this summer and instructed the cable company's service technicians to stay watchful in the field, Rein said. Other than the meeting, Rein said Hargray has not done anything to implement the sheriff's advice and has not further instructed its employees.

On June 26, Irvin spoke with Time Warner's technical operations crew to brief them on the types of activity to look for while working and to give them a phone number to report that activity, according to Pryzwansky, who did not attend the meeting and did not know what specific types of activity were discussed.

Both companies said they were not worried about customer perception when it came to reporting activity.

"Our field folks go through routine procedures when they visit a customers home to be there for authorized reasons," Pryzwansky said. "I would think that community members would welcome the fact that a company such as Time Warner was participating in this."

Pryzwansky said Friday he does not know if Time Warner participates in a similar initiative in any of the other 28 states where it does business.

Palmetto Electric has not received word about the program, according to Jimmy Baker, vice president of marketing and public relations.

He said the utility company would be interested in the program, and that he hopes "common sense," would prevail when employees reported unsafe or illegal activity.

In the past, utility and cable employees have helped deputies in cases of stolen cars, motorcycles and air conditioners, Tanner said.

The program, however, will not encourage the employees to report any suspicious activity inside a customer's home, he said.

"You have got to be careful with those type of things," Tanner said. "There are Fourth Amendment issues you have to deal with when you're talking about someone's home. You can't send someone in to do a search for you. That person would automatically be an extension of law enforcement."

"We're not going to go there or do that or make recommendations on that. We'll discourage it," he added.

Instead, Tanner provided the hypothetical of a utility employee working in the woods who calls the Sheriff's Office to report finding a stolen backhoe.

The sheriff would not comment on whether instructional materials had been passed out to employees during the training session.

Asked if Hargray employees would report suspicious activity in a customer's home, Rein said it depended on the instructions outlined by the sheriff.

"We trust the judgment of our employees to do what is right," he said. "It clearly depends on the facts of that situation. You can have scenarios where it should be obvious they do that. And then there are scenarios where obviously they shouldn't."

Pryzwansky, from Time Warner, said in an email, "When in a customer's home, our representatives are there to provide excellent customer service and perform the scheduled task at hand. We fully respect our customers' privacy. The neighborhood watch program implemented by the local authorities is designed to aid the authorities with tips related to illegal activity."

At Hilton Head Exterminators, it already is the pest-control company's policy for employees to report unusual or dangerous activity they see in the field, general manager Bill Robertson said. He said the company has reported children left unattended in playpens, wide-open front doors and leaking hot water heaters, but "if we saw someone in their home smoking marijuana, I doubt anybody would report that."

Robertson has not been approached to join the sheriff's initiative, and said he would have to look at the entire program to judge its worth.

"We go into a lot of homes and condos, but we certainly aren't law enforcement," he said. "So I don't want to encourage my guys to determine if anything is illegal or not illegal. We don't want that liability."

Tanner maintains no one is being asked to report what goes on inside a customer's home, but one constitutional-law professor said it would be perfectly legal if he were.

"The Supreme Court has long held that what you knowingly reveal to third parties is not protected by the Fourth Amendment," said Thomas Crocker, a professor of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina.

"When you knowingly invite a cable or utility person into the home, anything in view is not protected. It's the same thing as inviting a police officer in your home."

Crocker said anything readily visible is OK to report.

"If would be different if they rummaged through your stuff," he said.

For police to act on a tip from a utility employee, they would need probable cause, he said.

If a tip led to a false arrest, Crocker said that most of the time the tipster would not be culpable.

"Assuming police had probable cause and part of probable cause was a company's tip, then that's that," he said.

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