Collecting Rent From Behind Bars

iStock_000024388823Small-300pxThis Thanksgiving, many tenants across the United States can be thankful for having a landlord who strives to maintain a safe living environment while being responsive to tenants’ legitimate needs as they arise.

But although there are many excellent landlords out there, some are real turkeys who excel at gobbling up rent while ruffling tenants’ feathers to a point that crosses the line. Rather than just being held civilly liable to tenants for a dispute or even being outed on a city’s website for excessive violations of its code, these landlords’ take action that’s so egregious it warrants criminal charges.

Fortunately, not many landlords manage their property in a manner that lands them in jail. But here are some ways it can happen:

Putting lives at risk to save money. There’s nothing wrong with trying to save money, but landlords who attempt to do so in a way that violates the law and puts tenants’ lives at risk are making a serious mistake.

When a fire consumed a New York City apartment building in 2010, fire fighters encountered unexpected trouble when trying to battle the blaze because the landlord had illegally added partitions to create additional apartments for more revenue, according to reporting by The New York Times. Earlier this month, prosecutors announced that the landlord, who was arraigned in 2012, pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and will face a prison sentence of one to three years. In addition, the landlord is reportedly paying $1 million to the family of a girl who escaped the fire with serious injuries.

Taking eviction law into your own hands. Landlords who ignore landlord-tenant law and follow their own rules when it comes to evicting tenants not only risk liability with their tenants but could get arrested for their unlawful actions.

Early this month, a Lloyd, New York, landlord decided to wake up a tenant in the middle of the night and try to evict her by throwing away her belongings. The landlord was charged with second-degree burglary (a felony) and fourth-degree criminal mischief (a misdemeanor), according to the Poughkeepsie Journal.

In a similar recent case, the owner of a rental property in Norwood, North Carolina, allegedly broke the law by forcing tenants out of their apartments and removing their belongings. Local police arrested and charged the landlord for three felonies, including breaking and entering, larceny after breaking and entering, and larceny of a motor vehicle, according to a report from the Anson Record.

If you’re a tenant facing an eviction that you believe is unlawful, learn about your rights by checking out the Nolo article, “Can I sue my landlord for an illegal eviction?

Continuing to ignore the law even after you’re ordered to pay for violating it. Landlords who don’t follow laws that pertain to them usually risk getting sued or fined for their noncompliance. But landlords who ignore laws, get fined, and then ignore those fines may risk jail time.

Earlier this month, the Contra Costa Times reported that local authorities in Concord, California, were seeking to arrest a landlord for allegedly refusing to comply with the city code when it comes to eliminating bed bugs. For months, the landlord ignored violation notices and refused to pay fines totaling $800, according to the report. If convicted on the misdemeanor violation of the city code, the landlord could face six months in jail and an additional $1,000 fine.

Taking advantage of your position as a landlord. Although landlords own the buildings in which their tenants reside, their actions are limited by their lease and the law. For example, landlords can’t just drop in on tenants whenever they wish or secretly spy on them.

The owner of a New York City brownstone just learned that lesson the hard way when a grand jury indicted him on 10 felony counts of unlawful surveillance after a tenant discovered he was secretly filming her using hidden cameras in her apartment, according to a report earlier this month in the New York Post. The tenant is also bringing a civil suit against the landlord for liability.

If you’re interested in crime (reading about it, that is), be sure to check out another Nolo law blog, “Uncuffed: A Candid Take on Crime and Society,” in which Micah Schwartzbach discusses all things criminal law, from individual rights to fair punishment to current events.