Criminal Acts and Activities: Landlord Liability FAQ

The dozens of day to day responsibilities required to be a landlord can cause important liability concerns to go unattended. Criminal acts and activities may not be an everyday occurrence, but that doesn’t mean landlords should wait for a crime to occur before they start thinking about protecting themselves from a lawsuit. More lawsuits are being filed against landlords in an attempt to hold them accountable for crimes occurring on their rental property. These crimes can involve both outsiders who break into the property or tenants’ criminal activity. In this educational guide, we will answer common landlord liability questions when it comes to criminal acts and activities. We’ll address everything from landlord responsibility for drug use and preventive measures. A lawsuit and settlement can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Don’t expose yourself to this risk. Read this guide to understand your liability and take steps towards creating an asset protection strategy.

What Are a Landlord’s Legal Responsibilities for Protecting Against Criminal Activities

While laws differ from state to state, landlords in most states do have some level of legal responsibility for criminal acts and activities. Landlords hold some responsibility for protecting their tenants from the criminal actions of outsiders that occur on the property. These include robberies, vandalism, and violent attacks such as shootings or rapes. Landlords are also responsible for crimes committed by current tenants against other tenants. More specifically, landlords can be held responsible for allowing a tenant’s illegal drug activity on their property. These illegal drug activities can threaten the safety of other tenants. Also, landlords have a wider responsibility towards their surrounding neighborhood. For instance, landlords can be held liable for allowing their tenants to continue with dangerous and illegal drug activity, which spills over to the surrounding neighborhoods.

Where Do Landlord Liability Laws Originate?

The above mentioned legal responsibilities stem from the following categories:

  1. Building Codes
  2. Ordinances
  3. Statutes
  4. Court Decisions

Landlord Liability for Drug Dealing Tenants

Drug dealing tenants pose several business and legal consequences. Here are a few consequences all landlords should keep in mind:

  1. Negative impact on property value. The presence of drug dealing can drive away current and future tenants. The low demand can into turn lower rental prices.
  2. Confiscation of rental property. In some states, law enforcement can seize rental property where drug dealing occurs. However, this happens in only extreme cases.
  3. Criminal penalties. Landlords who knowingly allow illegal drug activity on their property risk being charged by authorities for aiding the crime.
  4. Heavy fines. Landlords can be charged heavy fines on federal, state, and local levels for allowing illegal drug activity.
  5. Lawsuits. Both tenants and neighboring individuals can file a lawsuit against a landlord for allowing illegal drug activity. Filers can claim that the property is a public nuisance and threat to public safety.

Landlords should also note that the above mentioned consequences are not only triggered by direct drug dealing, but also illegally manufacturing or growing drugs. Thus, landlords shouldn’t turn a blind eye to illegal drug activity. A meth lab or illegal crop of marijuana can cost landlords thousands of dollars and criminal charges.

Preventing Landlord Liability in Tenant Drug Cases

In our own experience working with landlords, we’ve found that some simple preventive measures can be put in place to avoid landlord liability in tenant drug cases. Establishing preventive policies during the tenant screening process and acting early in response to potential illegal drug activity is key to preventing costly liability issues. Here are some ways to prevent potential illegal activity through a careful screening process.

  1. Screen tenants wisely. Landlords should balance their duty to follow anti-discriminatory laws established by the Fair Housing Act and a need to screen tenants likely to engage in unlawful activity. It is illegal for landlords to deny a tenant housing because they are a recovering drug addict, since addiction is seen as a disability under the Fair Housing Act. Also, it is illegal to deny housing due to a past arrest. However, landlords can still weed out potential problem tenants by analyzing their rental history and employment status. Past convictions, poor references by past landlords, or an inability to hold down a job can all be early warning signs.
  2. Don’t allow cash payments. While some tenants may choose cash payments to avoid the hassles of writing a check, others can be using cash as their form of “clean” money.
  3. Explicitly forbid illegal drug activity. Landlords should make it plain and clear in their rental agreements that engaging in illegal drug activity will result in eviction.
  4. Respond to complaints promptly. Landlords should pay close attention to the complaints of tenants as well as other neighbors. Upon learning about suspicious activity, seek the advice of law enforcement.
  5. Know the signs of illegal drug activity. Frequent foot traffic in and out of the rental property can be a sign of drug dealing on the premise. Landlords should not only pay attention to the amount of visitors but the duration of their visits. Short, frequent visits throughout the day can be a sign of a drug shop where drug customers come in and out to pick-up or drop-off illegal drugs.

Get Professional Help

As you can see, some practical steps can be taken to prevent potential liability issues relating to illegal tenant drug activity. The screening process is especially important in steering away drug dealers, but it should be done in a way that doesn’t violate anti-discriminatory housing laws. However, with the heavy proliferation of illegal drug activity, even careful landlords can find themselves in legal trouble. Our legal experts can assist with current drug related cases and help prevent future liability problems. Contact our experienced legal professionals today.

Last Updated: 
May 18, 2018

Scott Royal Smith is an asset protection attorney and long-time real estate investor. He's on a mission to help fellow investors free their time, protect their assets, and create lasting wealth.

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