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Legal Matters: Possible for landlords to face legal problems because of tenants’ activities

A recent police raid on a Westminster area rental home that allegedly turned up illegal drugs and an assault rifle — and led to arrests of tenants — prompted a reader to ask whether a landlord is legally obligated to ensure that his property is not used for activities that violate state laws.

The answer would be simple if the Code of Public Local Laws of Carroll County had a clause that dealt with a landlord’s responsibility for illegal actions by his tenants. It doesn’t, but a landlord may still face legal consequences for ignoring tenants’ criminal or other illegal actions.

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Tenants have a reasonable right of privacy, meaning that the landlord does not have the right to enter the property at any time or for any reason. If he does, he may be guilty of trespassing. But a landlord does have a reasonable right of entry for purposes such as inspecting the premises, making repairs or showing the property to a prospective new tenant.

A landlord may face legal problems for renting to tenants who deal drugs on the property, particularly if it can be proven that the landlord knew of the illegal activity.

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A landlord may be fined for allowing the activity, if laws that allow prosecutors to reach beyond dealers to the property owner are applicable to the specific situation, according to an article on the websiite realestate.findlaw.com.

If the landlord knew of the illegal activity, anyone injured or bothered by it — whether another tenant or a community resident — may sue the landlord on the grounds that the rental property has become a public nuisance or poses a danger to the community, the website reported.

Maryland real estate laws that deal with landlord-tenant issues are silent on whether a landlord has any obligation to screen prospective tenants for criminal activity.

State law places the responsibility to stop tenants from illegal drug activities on local authorities, not on the landlord. “The state’s attorney, the county attorney, or community associations may bring an eviction action against tenants involved in illegal drug activities,” according to the state attorney general’s office.

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If a landlord knowingly allowed drug dealing or other illegal activity at his rental property, police may attempt to impose criminal liability on him. Landlords can take steps to protect themselves from liability for illegal activities by their tenants by screening prospective tenants, asking questions on rental applications and requiring references from potential renters.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Her Legal Matters column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times. Email her at denglelaw@gmail.com.

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