Most states define “drug activity” as doing any of the following with controlled substances:
- Distributing; and
Controlled substances are substances that are regulated by federal law and listed in The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) into one of five schedules. The substances are essentially sorted by listing in the schedules on the basis of their medical use, potential for abuse, and safety or dependence liability.
Controlled substances can range from narcotics such as opium, opium derivatives and synthetic opioids, e.g. fentanyl, to marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine. Controlled substances also include industrial chemicals such as mercury or benzene.
What are the Consequences for Drug Activity in a Rental Property?
If a landlord rents property to a tenant who engages in drug activity, the landlord may have violated a so-called disorderly house law or a drug house law. These are state laws which make it a crime to be in control or management of real estate where drug activity is occurring.
These laws vary from state to state, however in some states a landlord who violates a drug house law has committed a felony and could face punishments including:
- A term of imprisonment ranging from 2 to 10 years;
- Fines, ranging from $1,000 to $1,000,000;
- Community service, usually no less than 30 days;
- Condemnation of the real estate; or
- Eviction from the property.
In other states, such as Maryland, the crime of keeping a disorderly house is a mere misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for at least 10 days and not more than 6 months or a fine of $50 to $300 or both.
The California Health and Safety Code makes it a crime to operate or maintain a drug house, which is defined as a location used for illegally selling, giving away or using controlled substances. In California the crime can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. If it is charged as a felony, conviction is punishable by up to 3 years in prison. If charged as a misdemeanor by a jail term of up to 1 year in jail.
In deciding if a person controls or manages the real estate in question, a court will consider factors such as:
- The time the person have spent at the real estate;
- How the person acquired the real estate;
- If the person rents or owns the real estate;
- How much repairs the person put into the real estate;
- If the person supplies food to the residents of the real estate.
A landlord could be charged with other drug crimes depending on the drug activity if, in fact, they were involved to some extent in the drug activity. Whether this is possible would depend on the facts of the particular situation.
What are the Landlord’s Obligations for Drug Activity in the Rental Property?
There are consequences for a landlord for a tenant’s drug activities. Of course, one of the consequences can be economic; the presence of drug-related activity can lower the rental value of rental property. But there can be legal consequences as well. Some of the following are possible:
- Confiscation of rental property: In some states, law enforcement officials can seize rental property where drug dealing occurs. This result is far from common, but it is a possibility in extreme cases;
- Criminal Penalties: In some states or localities, if a landlord knowingly allows illegal drug activity on their property, they are at risk of being charged by law enforcement with aiding and abetting whatever drug crime is involved in their their tenant’s activities;
- Fines: Under federal, state and local law, landlords can be charged fines for allowing illegal drug activity on their rental properties;
- Lawsuits: Both tenants and neighbors can file a lawsuit against a landlord for allowing illegal drug activity on the grounds that the property is a public nuisance and a threat to public safety.
Generally, a landlord has the right to evict a tenant who is engaged in drug-related activity without violating the lease and would be well advised to do so. In some states, under some circumstances, a landlord may also be able to sue the tenant, if they have suffered any loss or damage.
What are the Consequences for Drug Activity if It Is My Neighbor or Other Residents Who Are Doing It?
Generally speaking, if the criminal behavior of another person is beyond a person’s control, the person who is not engaged in criminal behavior cannot be liable, civilly or criminally. This would apply to a tenant whose tenant neighbors are involved in criminal drug activity. It would also apply to a landlord with a rental property whose neighboring properties house people engaged in drug-related activity.
A person in this situation would want to think about whether there is anything they can do to stop the activity. If there is, then the person would want to take those steps. For example, if a person is a tenant and knows that other tenants in the same building are engaged in drug activity, the person may want to report the activity to the landlord. If the person is a landlord and knows that tenants or owners of neighboring properties are engaged in drug activity, they might want to inform the owners of the neighboring properties or possibly even local law enforcement.
However, if a situation is beyond a person’s control, then generally they do not have a duty to take any steps to try to stop the behavior of others. The law does not hold people responsible for situations over which they have no control.
Another possible scenario is a person who shares a single rental unit with roommates. In this case, the situation would be a bit different. If law enforcement officers were to find controlled substances in shared housing, then every person who is a tenant may be under suspicion and might have a legal problem. In this case, a person might want to report the activity to the landlord, if possible. They might also want to look for another place to live.
Landlords have some responsibility for the activities of their tenants and a duty to protect their tenants from harm on their rental properties, including the criminal acts of other tenants. Landlords and other property owners have a duty to protect tenants and other users of their properties from criminal conduct generally on their properties by doing such things as providing adequate lighting at night.
Landlords must also protect the neighborhood in which their property is located from the illegal activities of their own tenants. These duties arise from local ordinances and state law. But that is the extent of their legal obligation.
Do I Need an Attorney if I am Involved With Drug Activity in Relation to Rental Property?
If you have a concern about whether you have to stop or prevent criminal activity by your tenants, including activity involving drugs, an experienced landlord tenant attorney or a drug lawyer can help answer your questions.
A qualified landlord-tenant attorney can analyze the facts of your particular situation and advise you on how to protect your interests in avoiding liability, both criminal and civil, for the activity of your tenants.