Advocates ask lawmakers to update 600-year-old eviction law

Pat and Henry Bradley say their landlord decided to suddenly kick them out of his waterfront Dundalk house, changing the locks while they were still frantically trying to remove their belongings.

The couple, who didn't have a lease, are to testify about their experience in Annapolis this week when House and Senate members convene hearings to decide whether to stop landlords and property owners from locking out residents without court orders and sheriff's deputies on standby to evict them.


The pending legislation would change a 600-year-old English law that allows the so-called self-help evictions, which many didn't realize were legal until the Court of Appeals ruled last October that the 14th-century common law that Maryland inherited still stands.

At least 300 Maryland families were subject to self-help evictions in 2012, including tenants who rented houses without active leases and were locked out while they were at work or on an errand, according to the bill's proponents.


The Court of Appeals case centered on the eviction of a Baltimore man who was locked out of the house his parents once owned nine months after the property was sold at a foreclosure sale. The legislation, as drafted, calls for new eviction standards between landlords and tenants, homeowners in foreclosure situations, and mobile home residents and park owners.

Pat Bradley said about four months after their lease expired in late October, their landlord told her and her husband they had to move out, saying, "This isn't working out." Within days, they said, he pressured them to vacate the property immediately.

As the couple moved their items in shifts, Henry Bradley discovered new locks on the house and garage before they had a chance to remove all of their belongings. The Bradleys contend that they deserved at least 30 days' notice to find a new place.

"It wasn't only wrong because this was our home, but we had done nothing wrong to our knowledge," Pat Bradley said. "We were good neighbors. We paid our rent on time.

"I am still not over this. I am still not quite settled where I am now. It's like a fear. I can't settle."

The landlords, Richard and Leslie Melzer, said the Bradleys caused damage to the home and were often late paying the rent. They said they only changed the locks because the Bradleys hadn't left the keys.

"We didn't evict them; we asked them to leave," Leslie Melzer said.

Advocates of the legislation say self-help evictions are rife with problems, including the potential for conflicts, physical or otherwise.


"I am trying to restore what people thought was the law," said Del. Anne Healey, a Prince George's County Democrat who sponsored the House bill. "It's kind of dangerous for people, a do-it-yourself eviction."

Healey said she is also concerned about the sudden homelessness that the evictions could create or potential problems that arise from separating people from their belongings, such as medications.

Advocates for the legislation said there is little known opposition to the bill, although that could change as more people become aware of the legislation.

More than 40 states have prohibited or limited such evictions, according to C. Matthew Hill, a staff attorney at the Public Justice Center. Being locked out of a home is "an absolute horror" to those who have experienced it, he said.

"It is an incredible stress," Hill said. "It's not just about their furniture or about their TVs. They have lost items that have a lot of sentimental value in many cases."

For some, the situation can be dire, he said.


"You're talking about instant homelessness," Hill said. "It's almost a wild-wild West mentality that may have had its place in 1381, but it doesn't today."

The legislation would also stop landlords and property owners from withholding services such as water and electricity to tenants and occupants. It calls for landlords who evict tenants without court orders to pay triple damages and attorney fees.

Hill said landlords and entities that purchase foreclosed homes have rapid court procedures available without engaging in a self-help eviction.

Robert Strupp, executive director for Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., supports the legislation. His organization's help line for landlords and tenants received 307 calls from residents across the state who said they were locked out of their homes.

Supporters of the bill say they're worried that without legislation to block landlords and property owners from short-cutting evictions, more residents will become vulnerable.

"The occupants' right to occupy can't and shouldn't be terminated without some form of judicial validation," Strupp said. "This bill would close the loophole created by the Court of Appeals.


"We think this is a matter of some urgency. Whether the numbers are 307 or 3,007, it really doesn't matter. It is going to have a significant impact, and it ought not be the practice in the state of Maryland."