A landlord in Martinsburg, West Virginia has been arrested and charged with a violation of that city’s nuisance rental law after her tenant was accused of drug activity.
According to Martinsburg police, at least 35 rental properties have been taken out of service over the nuisance law, known as the Drug House Ordinance.
The move came after police were called to the property following complaints by neighbors. Once inside, police say they found used syringes and about $1,000 in cash, which officers suspected was from drug sales. The tenant was arrested on drug charges.
Subsequently, the landlord was notified that the property was in violation of the city’s nuisance ordinance. She was ordered to appear in front of a judge a few weeks later and present evidence that she had cleaned up the drug problem on her property and taken steps to prevent future infractions. The city alleged that the landlord was not fully compliant, and she was arrested and charged with failing to abate the nuisance. She faces possible fines as high as $56,000.
Martinsburg police say the ordinance has been an effective tool in reducing police calls. At least nine calls for police intervention at this property were logged during the past year. However, it is not entirely clear whether multiple complaints were lodged by the same person, or if any of the calls came from the tenants.
While nuisance rental laws are increasingly common, these ordinances have not been without controversy. The ACLU has taken issue with counting the number of police calls to a property as a factor in determining a nuisance. A similar law in Norristown, Pennsylvania prevented a tenant from calling police when her life was in danger because she feared she would be evicted. In that case, the victim was awarded $495,000 from the city and the ordinance was repealed.
Another danger with forcing landlords to abate crime is the possibility that a landlord’s actions will impact the tenant’s prosecution. For instance, if a landlord questions a tenant or uncovers drug paraphernalia then later reports it to the police, a savvy defense attorney may successfully argue that the evidence is tainted. If, for any reason, a tenant is not convicted of the crime, it may be impossible for a landlord to obtain an eviction order. And it may be a violation of the Fair Housing Act for the next landlord to reject that tenant over the drug arrest when there is no corresponding conviction.
No one wants criminals in a rental property, but policing drug activity falls outside of the typical landlord’s training. Despite possible financial consequences, landlords should report suspected crimes to the police for investigation. Landlords also can be proactive in minimizing income loss from crime by carefully screening tenants, including credit, eviction and criminal history, and incorporating crime prohibitions into the lease agreement. That will reduce the likelihood of renting to a problem tenant, and set the stage for quicker eviction in the event a tenancy goes awry.
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.