Field visit encounters: Identifying a ‘stash house’
If an officer suspects that he or she has located a stash house with possible illegal activity while conducting a field visit, it is best to be as discrete as possible
A stash house is a building, trailer, or house where weapons, drugs, illegal aliens, or illegal items are hidden or stored. These so-called stash houses are used by alien smuggling syndicates as well as other organized criminal groups.
Identifying a stash house
During a probation officer’s case file supervision, it is not uncommon for a probation officer to conduct field and home visits at random or as needed in order to update a client’s case file. During these visits, many addresses can be checked and documented in an effort to update the case file. During field/home visits, an officer should pay close attention to the following “stash house indicators” to enhance officer safety on the field:
- Stash houses tend to be rental homes with attached garages.
- The front yard of the home tends to be unkempt.
- The front door to the property may have an accumulation of advertisement material.
- The mailbox will be filled with mail.
- The home will have different types of vehicles, especially vans and pickup trucks, that will enter and exit the garage at different hours of the day or night (primarily during the nighttime or early morning hours.)
- The vehicles arriving at the stash house will have different license plates on them, and may often display paper “buyer” or “dealer” tags. They may also use these license plates interchangeably with all of the vehicles.
- Stash house caretakers/owners of the home tend to keep to themselves and will not be visible on a daily basis.
- Stash house caretakers/owners that are actually living at the stash house, will not appear to hold a regular job or have a “normal” lifestyle pattern.
- Probation officers may not see anyone at the stash house for several days or weeks, and then there will be a lot of activity (as described above) at the house.
If the officer is allowed into the home by the homeowner:
- The home will have little if any, furniture in the home.
- The home may have large amounts of trash consisting of fast food, water and soda bottles.
The field/home visit
If an officer suspects that he or she has located a stash house with possible illegal activity while conducting a field visit, it is best to be as discrete as possible. This investigation is best conducted with a partner. A partner can help in multiple ways, but primarily, one officer can take photos discretely while the other officer conducts a safety check of the immediate area.
A home layout and property diagram are key to a successful law enforcement operations plan. As officers walk the property of the home, they should take notes of the home layout and create the diagram as soon as the visit is completed. In the event a law enforcement agency chooses to investigate the home, having a property diagram could change the operation plan of entrance for the agency. The property diagram is very helpful. This makes an officer’s home/field visit a key component of the law enforcement operations plan.
Debriefing law enforcement
If the probation officer has located a stash house, the officer should alert his or her department and the local law enforcement agency immediately. When introducing the evidence to the local law enforcement agency, officers should give authorities as many details as possible about the suspected criminal activity. I cannot stress enough how important photos and videos are to an investigation. Probation officers should take advantage of their presence at the time of the home/field visit and take as many photos as possible. Providing this to a law enforcement agency can make or break a case.
A property where a stash house is in operation will typically be housing drugs, guns, and/or illegal aliens. As a probation officer who has conducted multiple home visits, I can assure you, where there are drugs there are guns and if there are no guns there are dogs. Dogs are cheap and reliable alarm systems and alien smuggling syndicates and criminal organizations are not opposed to protecting their investments. Dogs should be treated like lethal weapons and be treated with respect and vigilance when conducting field/home visits. Probation officers should take every precaution they can when dealing with these animals, and if dogs are present in the home, law enforcement should be made aware of them during the debrief.
Probation officers should also focus on the home when documenting and photographing the property, and if possible take as many photos of the vehicles in the home. Officers should provide law enforcement with a full debrief of their client in order to inform the law enforcement agency about the client’s past and present behavior during community supervision.
Case file documentation
A probation officer’s case file documentation is vital in many ways. To any federal, state, or local law enforcement agency, an officer’s case file documentation can be the missing puzzle piece in an ongoing law enforcement investigation. Officers should take the time and effort to conduct their home/field visits accurately and with due diligence in an effort to keep a current case file.
And as always, please remember, “We are each other’s greatest teachers.”
I would like to thank all of the members of the United States Marshals Gulf Coast Violent Offender & Fugitive Offender Task Force, for all of their assistance and guidance in my pursuit of enhancing the training of community corrections officers, parole officers, and probation officers. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Leo Perez; e-mail; firstname.lastname@example.org.