During this COVID-19 public health emergency, the Attorney General’s Office has received reports of illegal “self-help evictions,” in which landlords circumvent the required court process and attempt to forcibly remove their tenants or prevent their tenants from accessing the property. Yesterday, the Office issued guidance to local law enforcement agencies regarding how to best address and stop self-help evictions.
Self-help evictions are illegal. Rhode Island law has long been clear that landlords can only evict a tenant by going to court and obtaining a court order. Such legal process is important to ensure that both parties’ rights are fairly heard and to avoid the person-to-person conflict that the “self-help” route is likely to engender. Presently, courts have delayed all non-essential business, including eviction actions.
“This ongoing public health crisis is difficult for everyone, and I understand that there are landlords who might be frustrated if they have a tenant that may owe them money and the usual court process is not presently available to them,” said Attorney General Peter F. Neronha. “But that does not mean that they can simply ignore the law and take matters into their own hands, with all the accompanying problems.”
Actions like illegally changing locks, cutting off electricity, or otherwise trying to strong-arm a tenant out of a property are all examples of self-help evictions. Landlords who engage in this conduct may face civil or criminal penalties. This applies to both residential and commercial landlords.
“We heard about a woman whose landlord cut the power to her Providence apartment, where she lived with her 7-year-old daughter. While the tenant was out trying to find another apartment, the landlord changed the locks and threw out all her remaining belongings,” said Attorney General Neronha. “This type of conduct is what we are concerned about.”
While municipal solicitors are typically responsible for investigating and prosecuting the misdemeanor criminal offenses that are likely to arise from self-help evictions, the Attorney General’s Office is prepared to prosecute these matters in the District Court if that is a municipality’s preference. The Office is also prepared to provide local law enforcement and city and town solicitors with further direction if a prosecution is initiated as a result of this guidance.
Tenants who are being evicted by a landlord without a valid court order are advised to keep making normal rent payments to the extent possible and seek legal guidance.