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Illegal Evictions Can Get You in Trouble for Landlord Harassment

An illegal eviction occurs when a landlord uses self-help to evict a tenant. Self-help evictions happen when a landlord retakes possession of a rental property without using the legal eviction process.

The use of self-help may amount to landlord harassment. Almost all states prohibit a landlord from evicting a tenant via self-help, which may lead to fines and penalties.

This article explores illegal evictions and how to avoid them.

How to Start a Legal Eviction

An eviction is a legal process to remove a tenant from a rental property or dwelling unit. Since lease and rental agreements are binding legal contracts, landlords and property managers need a valid reason to remove a tenant.

Valid reasons for evicting a tenant include but are not limited to the following:

These issues can negatively affect the landlord. Landlords' rights allow property owners to protect themselves and their financial interests against these problems. Yet, landlords must take the proper steps to exercise those rights. 

Don't Take Shortcuts in the Eviction Process

A state's legal eviction procedures apply regardless of what a tenant has done or how a tenant behaves. As a landlord, you cannot take matters into your own hands. You must use their state's eviction process. Otherwise, you may risk a lawsuit or criminal penalties for wrongful evictions.

Notify Tenants Before Taking Any Other Actions

The legal eviction process begins with a written notice to the tenant advising them of the reason for the eviction and an opportunity to avoid it. Consider, for example, a tenant who owes two months' rent. Their landlord can allow them to pay the past-due rent and avoid eviction through a "pay rent or quit" notice.

Other types of notices include the "cure or quit" and "unconditional quit" notices. A "cure or quit" notice is often used for violations of rental or lease agreements. Tenants can cure the violation or vacate the rental unit.

Landlords use "unconditional quit" notices for extreme situations, like a tenant who hasn't paid rent in five months. Whereas the other notices come with a few days' notice and an opportunity to resolve the underlying issue, in this case the tenant must vacate immediately.

Stubborn Tenant? Consider an Eviction Lawsuit

If the tenant ignores the eviction notice, the landlord may file an eviction action in the appropriate court. In some states, a housing court is the venue for an eviction case; in others, it's a small claims court.

This action, or "unlawful detainer," allows the landlord to regain possession of the property. If the landlord prevails in their legal action, the court can issue a writ of possession. This writ legally returns the rental property to the landlord. The court order may also include attorney fees and court costs.

Self-Help Evictions Risk Legal Consequences

Self-help evictions occur when the landlord doesn't use the legal eviction process.

The following are a few self-help methods landlords use to evict a renter illegally:

  • A tenant lockout by changing the locks on the unit
  • Turning off utility services
  • Removing the tenant's personal property from the rental unit
  • Threatening the tenant
  • Ordering the tenant to leave

These methods can constitute landlord harassment or violate the warranty of habitability. Tenants who face an illegal eviction or harassment may speak to a real estate or tenant rights attorney. They may seek a restraining order or other formal actions to fight these methods. 

Landlord Liability for Illegal Evictions

Illegal evictions open property owners, landlords, and property managers to significant liability. A tenant's behavior will not shield a landlord from liability. Instead, a court may view the landlord's unlawful actions as landlord harassment.

In many states, the tenant can get damages for the expenses of illegal eviction, which may include compensation for:

  • Temporary housing
  • The food that spoiled during the electricity shut-off

Some states allow renters to recover monetary damages such as a few months' rent or a few times the actual damages.

The court may also award to the renter:

  • The option to vacate the premises and collect their security deposit
  • The return of all prepaid rent to the departing tenant

 Landlords may also face criminal penalties for harassment. In New York state, for example, unlawful evictions are a criminal misdemeanor.

Evict Tenants Lawfully Instead

Instead of using harassment or other illegal means to force someone to vacate a rental unit, a landlord should follow applicable state laws when evicting a tenant. Although it may take longer, and court costs may be expensive, following the process will protect a landlord from hefty damages.

With the court order, the landlord can ask a law enforcement officer to remove the tenant from the property. This step avoids the hint of impropriety.

Get Advice for Illegal Eviction Problems

If you are facing an illegal eviction issue as a renter or a landlord, getting help can protect you. An experienced attorney can give you sound legal advice for your specific situation. Speak to a qualified, local landlord-tenant law attorney in your area.

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