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FAQ -- Landlord Responsibilities: Criminal Activities

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions regarding landlord liability and their responsibilities when it comes to protecting tenants from criminals and other tenants.

What responsibilities does a landlord have for tenants' safety and security?

In most states and jurisdictions, landlord responsibilities cover (at least to some degree) the protection of their tenants. This protection responsibility may impose a legal duty on the landlord to take steps to protect their tenants from thieves, assailants, and other tenants.

In addition to this responsibility to the tenants, landlords may also be partially responsible for protecting the surrounding community from their tenants' criminal acts. For example, some states have laws that impose liability on landlords for renting property to drug dealers. There are also rules that punish landlords for not seeking eviction if a renter is doing something illegal.

In increasing numbers, landlords are being brought to court by tenants that have been injured by criminals while in their rental properties. Settlements from these cases often reach into the millions of dollars, especially when a similar assault or crime occurred on the same rental property in the past.

Are there ways that a landlord can limit their responsibility for the criminal acts of non-tenants?

Yes, there are steps that a landlord can take that will not only lessen the chances of a crime being committed on the rental property but will also lessen the landlord's chance of being held liable for a crime being committed against their tenants.

Landlords should adhere to the following:

  • Ensure that each one of their rental units meets or exceeds the safety laws for the area. For example, many jurisdictions require that all residential rental properties have a locking doorknob and a deadbolt. To limit potential liability, a landlord could ensure that all of these fixtures are in working order and also install a sliding chain lock.
  • Give careful consideration to the crime scene in the area surrounding the rental properties, and create and install a security system that is designed to counteract popular crimes in the neighborhood. For example, if there has been a series of home break-ins through windows, a landlord may wish to install alarms or bars on accessible windows of all of the rental units in order to lessen their potential liability.
  • Going along with the previous point, the landlord should also educate the tenants about the crime status in the neighborhood and provide training in any installed security systems.
  • Ask tenants about any potential security or safety problems that may exist in the rental property. If there are any tenant complaints about potential safety problems, these should be handled immediately. If any problems that are brought to the landlord's attention are not fixed, it could lead to increased liability on the part of the landlord.
  • Regularly inspect the rental properties for any signs of potential crimes and fix any broken security measures that are in place.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, landlords should be very careful and deliberate when it comes to choosing a property manager. The property manager is the person that will have the most interaction with the tenants and also has keys to most of the rental units. Landlords should perform scrupulous background checks on any and all potential property mangers and choose the one that is best suited for the job. If a property manager commits a crime against a tenant, the landlord will most likely be responsible for the acts of the property manager and can expect to be sued for a large amount of money.

Even if some of these measures may seem to be overly expensive, keep in mind that any dollar spent now may save thousands of dollars in the future. Jury awards and litigation settlements for crimes such as assault and rape inside of a rental property can cost landlords hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions.

Can landlords face legal trouble for tenants that deal drugs on the rental property?

Yes. If a landlord rents to a person that deals drugs out of their rental property, the landlord may face one or more of the following kinds of practical and legal problems:

  • The landlord may face fines stemming from various federal, state, city, or local laws.
  • Any person that is injured or otherwise bothered by drug dealers in a landlord's rental properties — be it another tenant or someone in the community — may sue the landlord, claiming that the rental property has become a public nuisance or poses a danger to the community.
  • The police or other law enforcement officers may try to impose criminal liability on the landlord if the landlord knowingly allowed drug dealing on the rental property.
  • The government may seize the landlord's rental property and other assets, in extreme cases.
  • Finally, as a practical manner, drug dealing in or about the rental property will probably decrease the value of the rental property, making it harder to find good tenants.

Are there ways that a landlord can limit their responsibility for a tenant's criminal conduct?

There are a number of steps that a landlord can take to limit any potential liability that could be caused by criminal tenants, including:

  • Be sure to screen tenants carefully. Ask key questions about criminal histories on rental applications. In addition, many states allow landlords to run credit reports on potential tenants. These checks can be a great help in finding good tenants.
  • Be sure to include an explicit clause in the rental agreement that states that the landlord has the option of evicting any tenant that is dealing or making drugs in the rental property. If any tenant is caught violating this clause, do not listen to arguments. Evict them immediately.
  • Do not take rent payments in cash, unless you trust the tenant.
  • Listen to other tenants if they complain of strange odors or a high amount of traffic in and out of a certain apartment or rental property.

Get Legal Help With a Landlord's Responsibilities Regarding Criminal Activity

As a landlord, you certainly don't want your tenants to engage in illegal activities on your property, especially if they cause a disturbance with other tenants or the surrounding neighborhood. If you have questions about your rights and responsibilities with respect to a tenant who you believe is involved in illegal activity, you may want to speak with a local landlord-tenant law attorney

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