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OAKLAND, July 13, 2022 – California Attorney General Rob Bonta today issued legal guidance about steps law enforcement officers should take to prevent and respond to unlawful lockouts and self-help evictions. The California Department of Justice’s Housing Strike Force has received reports of landlords trying to “evict” tenants by changing the locks on rental properties, shutting off water or electricity, or removing tenants’ personal property. Under California law, the only lawful way to evict a tenant is to file a case in court. In today’s guidance, Attorney General Bonta emphasizes that, when called to resolve a dispute between a landlord and tenant, law enforcement have a legal responsibility to intervene to prevent illegal evictions.
“Nearly 1.5 million renters in California are at risk of eviction, struggling to put together next month’s rent as the cost of living continues to rise,” said Attorney General Bonta. “While landlords may be frustrated, they have a responsibility to go through proper proceedings if eviction is the necessary next step. Let me be clear: That means filing a case in court. You cannot change the locks, shut off power, or remove personal property in order to force a tenant out of their home. These so-called self-help evictions are unlawful. Full stop. And you may be held civilly or criminally liable. Today’s guidance underlines law enforcement’s important role in responding to reports of illegal evictions and their responsibility to intervene to enforce the law and stop self-help evictions when they see them.”
The Tenant Protection Act prohibits landlords from evicting most tenants without “just cause.” The law sets out two kinds of evictions: “at fault” evictions and “no fault” evictions. At fault evictions include, for example, nonpayment of rent, criminal activity on the premises, and refusal to allow lawful entry. No fault evictions include, for example, owner move-in, substantial remodel that requires permits and will take more than 30 days, and intent to demolish the unit. Landlords can only evict a tenant for one of the reasons listed here. The only lawful way to evict a tenant is to file lawsuit and wait for the court to order the Sheriff or Marshal to carry out the eviction. Unlawful lockouts and self-help evictions are serious offenses and can result in major legal consequences, including law enforcement action or a private court case by the tenant.
In today’s bulletin, Attorney General Bonta provides the following guidance for law enforcement called to a dispute between a landlord and tenant:
- Law enforcement should never help a landlord evict a tenant by force or threats.
- Only the Sheriff or Marshal, or their deputies, may evict a tenant, and only with a court order.
- Other peace officers should not ask the tenant to leave their home.
- Law enforcement should advise the landlord or other persons involved that it is a misdemeanor to force tenants out of a rental property and should instruct them to allow the tenant back into the home.
- Law enforcement should advise the landlord to seek legal advice if they have an issue with the tenant or to lawfully evict the tenant.
- Law enforcement should write a report about the incident even if no arrest is made.
Attorney General Bonta is committed to advancing housing access, affordability, and equity in California, including protecting and promoting tenants’ rights. In November, Attorney General Bonta announced the creation of the Housing Strike Force and launched a Housing Portal on DOJ’s website with resources and information for California homeowners and tenants. Soon after, Attorney General Bonta secured a $3.5 million judgment against Wedgewood that resolved allegations that the company was unlawfully evicting tenants from properties purchased at foreclosure sales. Attorney General Bonta also sent warning letters to law firms across the state that represent landlords in eviction cases after being notified that some firms and their clients may have violated the law.
A copy of the bulletin can be found here.