Landlord Liability for Criminal Acts of Tenants

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 What Liability Does a Landlord Have for Criminal Acts of His or Her Tenants?

In addition to possibly being held liable for the criminal acts of strangers or non-tenants, a landlord typically has a duty to protect the neighborhood of the rental property from criminal acts of their tenants. Most often, a landlord is held responsible for their tenants dealing drugs on the property.

Evicting a tenant for illegal activity may be an option for a landlord, but they will be required to follow the eviction laws in their state.

What Kinds of Penalties Do Landlords Face for Tenants Dealing Drugs?

Landlords or owners of rental property may face legal punishment if one of their tenants deals drugs on the property. Typically, for a landlord to face criminal punishments, it requires that they have knowledge of drug dealing or other illegal activities.

It is important for landlords to be aware of the following:

  • They may face fines for allowing illegal activity to occur or to continue;
  • They can face criminal penalties for knowingly allowing the illegal activity to occur; and
  • The rental property may be confiscated by the government, however, this is only done in extreme cases.

In addition to criminal penalties, there may be other negative consequences for a landlord, which may include:

  • Rental property value can drop, making it hard to find and keep tenants; and
  • If a tenant or anyone else in the neighborhood is injured or annoyed by the drug dealing, the landlord can be sued on the grounds that the rental property constitutes a public nuisance that threatens public safety and public morals.

What Can I Do to Prevent Being Held Responsible for the Criminal Acts Committed by My Tenants?

There are steps landlords can take to reduce the likelihood of being held responsible for the criminal actions of a tenant or tenants. One important step is to perform a thorough screening of any applicant when renting out a property.

The following tips will also help landlords protect themselves from responsibility of criminal acts of their tenants:

  • Do not accept cash payments for rent;
  • Keep an eye out for any suspicious activity on the property, for example, heavy traffic going into and out of the building;
  • Have provisions in the lease stating that drug dealing and other criminal activity will not be tolerated;
  • Evict any tenant who violates these provisions immediately;
  • If any complaints from tenants about drug dealing or other criminal activity are received, respond immediately;
    • In addition, consult law enforcement if necessary;
  • Consult a security expert and do anything else that is reasonable and legal in order to determine if there is any criminal activity occurring on the premises;
    • A rental property is required to meet or exceed all state and local security laws, such as:
      • deadbolt locks on doors;
      • good lighting; and
      • window locks;
  • Design a security system that provides reasonable protection for tenants based on an assessment of crime around the rental property and in the neighborhood;
    • Private security professionals, insurance companies, and local law enforcement departments can provide helpful security advice;
  • Tenants should be informed about the neighborhood’s crime problems, the security measures provided, and their limitations;
  • Regularly inspect the rental property for security issues, for example, burned-out exterior flood lights or broken locks;
    • It may also be helpful to incorporate suggestions from tenants into an ongoing repair and maintenance system would also be a good idea; and
  • Respond immediately to tenant complaints about:
    • dangerous situations;
    • suspicious activities; or
    • broken security items.

It is important for landlords to be aware that they may be subject to a higher level of legal liability if a criminal act injures a tenant after they submitted a relevant complaint. All tenants should be informed if the additional security will require an increase in rent.

It may be costly to implement some of the additional security measures listed above. However, the costs are likely to be small when compared with the costs of dealing with crime on the premises.

It is common for juries to award higher amounts than landlords’ insurance settlements for outrageous crimes such as assault and rape. Individuals who own a rental property should be very careful when hiring a property manager who interacts with tenants and has access to master keys.

To the fullest extent that is permitted by law, a landlord should thoroughly investigate a property manager’s background and closely supervise their performance. Tenants who are injured or whose property has been damaged or stolen or by a property manager may sue the property owner for failing to properly screen or supervise the manager.

A landlord should pay attention if a tenant complains about illegal behavior by a manager. In addition, property owners should check their insurance policies to ensure that they cover illegal acts of employees.

When a Stranger Commits a Crime, Can a Landlord Be Held Liable?

A landlord may be held liable for the criminal acts of a complete stranger. This is true, especially in cases where there has been a history or assault or other criminal activity on the landlord’s property.

What Can a Landlord Do When Strangers Commit Criminal Acts On Their Property?

There are many states that require landlords to protect their tenants from criminal acts that are committed by outsiders, or non-tenants. It is also the duty of the landlord to protect the neighborhood from the criminal acts of its tenants.

These duties are typically based on:

  • Ordinances;
  • Statutes; and
  • Building codes.

What Are the Landlord’s Responsibilities in Terms of Tenant Safety and Security?

The majority of states require that a landlord protect their tenants from would-be thieves and assailants on the property as well as from the criminal acts of their fellow tenants. In addition, a landlord is required to protect the neighborhood from their tenants’ illegal activities, for example, drug dealing.

These legal duties are typically based on:

  • Building codes;
  • Ordinances;
  • Statutes; and
  • Court decisions.

It is becoming more and more common for tenants who are injured by criminals to sue rental property owners. The settlements and jury awards in these types of cases are ranging from $100,000 to $1 million.

A landlord will likely be held liable if a crime occurs on a property where a similar crime has already taken place.

I’m Concerned About My Tenants, Do I Need a Lawyer?

Landlord-tenant laws can be very complex, may vary by location, and are constantly changing. If you are a landlord and you are concerned about your duty to prevent criminal activity by your tenants, it is important to consult with a landlord-tenant lawyer.

Your lawyer can advise you regarding the laws of your state. In addition, your lawyer can advise you regarding the steps you should take and provisions you should include in your lease to protect your interests.

If an issue arises or criminal activity occurs on your rental property, your lawyer can answer your questions and represent you in court if necessary. A lawyer can also help you if you are a tenant who is concerned about safety on their rental premises.

If you are a tenant, your lawyer can advise you regarding possible liability of your landlord and steps the landlord can take to ensure your safety. Your attorney can advise you of the steps you can take to advise your landlord of any security issues so that, in the event a crime occurs in the future, there is proof of the complaint and a basis for liability.


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