There are occasions when a tenant’s behavior is so outrageous that a landlord is tempted to forgo legal proceedings and take matters in their own hands to evict a tenant. For example, after a tenant’s numerous promises to pay rent, a landlord may consider changing the locks and putting the tenant’s property out in the street. Or, a landlord who pays the utility bill may be tempted to simply not pay the bill in the hopes that the resulting lack of water, gas, or electricity will result in a tenant’s departure. These are common "self help" ways to evict a tenant.
Landlords who take matters into their own hands often think that their behavior will be excused by the tenant’s outrageous conduct. However, the fact that the tenant didn’t pay rent, left the property a mess, verbally abused the manager, or otherwise acted outrageously is not a valid defense. Threats, intimidation, utility shutoffs, or attempts to physically remove a tenant are often illegal and always dangerous. Instead, the landlord may face a lawsuit for trespass, assault, or wrongful eviction which costs much more to defend than the cost of a legal eviction proceeding. Therefore, a legal eviction proceeding is generally the only option.
Almost every state which forbids self help evictions also provides penalties for landlords who break the law. If a tenant sues after being locked or forced out, they can sue for their actual money losses and penalties, such as several months rent. In many states, the tenant will also be allowed to remain in the property.
Self help eviction in most states is illegal. Landlords are generally required to use court eviction proceedings to remove a tenant. If you are a landlord, an landlord-tenant attorney can help you through the eviction proceeding. If you are a tenant who has been locked out or physically removed from your property by your landlord, an attorney can help take your landlord to court.