PROVIDENCE – When a landlord enters the home a tenant has rented and, without a court order, starts removing furniture from the house, that may constitute an illegal eviction. When a landlord changes the locks, cuts off heat and electricity, or otherwise tries to strong-arm the tenant out of the house, that may constitute an illegal eviction. "Self-help" evictions, or evictions not authorized by a court order, are against the law.
Early on in the COVID-19 public health emergency, the Attorney General's Office issued guidance to local law enforcement agencies on how to best address 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. These illegal efforts have been seen by both Rhode Island Legal Services and the Rhode Island Center for Justice, where tenants often turn for help.
In recent weeks this Office has received reports of an increasing number of self-help evictions and, as a result, has issued updated guidance to ensure a continued law enforcement focus on self-help evictions.
A recent federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order that, in many cases, makes it illegal for landlords to evict tenants until at least December 31, 2020, may be contributing to this recent uptick in reports. Some landlords, trying to circumvent the CDC Order, may resort to self-help eviction tactics.
"The pandemic has resulted in tremendous financial hardship for landlords and tenants alike," said Attorney General Neronha. "While we recognize that, as I said back in April when we started seeing an increase in this practice, landlords cannot simply ignore the law and take matters into their own hands. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to heighten the dangers and public health consequences of housing instability, we can all agree that preventing or prosecuting self-help evictions must remain a law enforcement priority."
Self-help eviction tactics are unlawful. 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 even criminal penalties. This applies to both residential and commercial landlords.
"At Crossroads, we believe that all Rhode Islanders deserve a safe, stable place to live where they will be treated with respect. Most landlords are excellent partners in the fight for housing security, however, we have seen a recent increase in people being bullied into leaving their homes or served with illegal eviction notices," said Karen Santilli, Crossroads' president and CEO. "If your landlord is trying to force you out of your home you should call the police. These are incredibly difficult times for everyone, but know that you have rights and you have people throughout the state who are on your side and ready to help."
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.
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.