Criminal Acts and Activities: Landlord Liability FAQ

Landlords have some degree of legal responsibility to protect their tenants from assailants, thieves, and fellow tenants.

Updated by , Attorney UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated 5/22/2023

Landlords aren't expected to make their rentals into fortresses. But they are required to take reasonable precautions to protect tenants from criminal activity, warn tenants of known risks, and, when possible, take measures to protect their neighborhood from illegal activities committed by tenants.

Can a landlord be held liable for crimes committed at their rental property?

There's no hard-and-fast rule that landlords are automatically responsible for any crime that happens at their property. However, in most states, landlords are responsible for taking reasonable measures to protect their tenants from both:

  • criminal acts of strangers (such as break-ins and assaults) and
  • criminal acts of fellow tenants.

These legal duties stem from building codes, ordinances, statutes, and, most frequently, court decisions.

When a criminal act occurs that could've been prevented by reasonable measures—such as fixing broken locks or installing lighting in dark corners of a parking lot—a landlord could be found civilly liable to an injured tenant or guest on the property. Unless the landlord somehow actually participates in the crime or allows the crime to continue, though, it's unlikely that the landlord would be found criminally liable.

This means that the injured party could sue the landlord if they can demonstrate that the landlord had (or should've had) knowledge of the risk, and failed to take steps to lessen or eliminate the risk. Landlords are especially likely to be held liable when a crime occurs on (or near) a property where a similar assault or other crime has occurred in the past.

A landlord is also more likely to be found liable for crimes committed at the rental when the landlord has promised—but failed to deliver on—a secure property. For example, if a landlord advertises that the property has a security system or 24-hour guard, but in truth doesn't have (or maintain throughout the tenancy) these features, an injured tenant will have a strong case against the landlord if the tenant can demonstrate that the promised feature might have prevented the crime from occurring.

How can a landlord limit responsibility for crime committed by strangers at the rental property?

The following steps will not only limit the likelihood of crime, but also reduce the risk that the landlord will be found responsible if and when a criminal assault or robbery does occur.

To limit the likelihood of being held responsible for crimes committed on the premises, a landlord should:

  • Follow safety laws, codes, and ordinances. Meet or exceed all state and local security laws that apply to the rental property, such as requirements for deadbolt locks on doors, good lighting, and window locks.
  • Pay attention to local crime statistics. Realistically assess the crime situation in and around the rental property and neighborhood and design a security system that provides reasonable protection for the tenants. Local police departments, your insurance company, and private security professionals can provide useful advice on security measures.
  • Keep tenants informed. Educate tenants about crime problems in the neighborhood, and describe the security measures provided and their usage and limitations.
  • Stay on top of maintenance and repairs. Maintain the rental property and conduct regular inspections to spot and fix any security problems, such as broken locks or burnt out exterior flood lights. Asking tenants for their suggestions as part of an ongoing repair and maintenance system is also a good idea.
  • Address tenants' safety concerns promptly. Handle tenant complaints about dangerous situations, suspicious activities, or broken security items immediately. Failing to do this may saddle you with a higher level of legal liability should a tenant be injured by a criminal act after a relevant complaint is made.

If adding security measures requires a rent increase, discuss the situation with your tenants. Many tenants will pay more for a safer place to live.

While some of these measures may be costly, the amount a landlord spends on effective crime-prevention measures likely pales in comparison to the costs that could result from crime occurring on the premises. Settlements paid by landlords' insurance companies for horrific crimes such as rape and assault are typically in the hundreds of thousands of dollars—and jury awards are higher.

Protecting Tenants From the Manager

Rental property owners should be particularly careful when hiring a property manager—the person who interacts with all tenants and has access to master keys. Landlords should scrupulously check a property manager's background to the fullest extent allowed by law, and closely supervise his or her job performance. A tenant who gets hurt or has property stolen or damaged by a manager could sue the property owner for failing to screen or supervise the manager properly. If tenants complain about illegal acts by a manager, landlords should pay attention. Finally, property owners should make sure their insurance covers illegal acts of their employees.

What kinds of legal problems can landlords face when tenants deal illegal drugs at the rental?

Drug-dealing tenants can cause landlords all kinds of practical and legal problems. Depending on state and local laws, landlords might experience any of the following when tenants deal illegal drugs at the rental:

  • Lawsuits. Anyone who is injured or annoyed by drug dealers—be it other tenants or neighbors—may sue the landlord on the grounds that the property is a nuisance that seriously threatens public safety or morals.
  • Government fines. Local, state, or federal authorities may levy stiff fines against the landlord for allowing illegal activity to continue.
  • Criminal penalties. Law enforcement authorities may seek criminal penalties against the landlord for knowingly allowing drug dealing on the rental property.
  • Forfeiture complaints. In extreme cases, the presence of drug dealers may result in the government confiscating (seizing) the rental property.
  • Business losses. A drug-dealing environment can make it difficult to find and keep good tenants, and the value of the rental property will plummet.

How can a landlord avoid liability for tenants' drug dealing and other illegal activities?

The good news for landlords is that there are plenty of practical steps they can take to minimize tenant criminal activity. Most of these steps will also help landlords limit their liability in the event that someone harmed by a tenant's criminal act decides to sue.

    • Screen tenants carefully. Choose tenants who are likely to be law-abiding and peaceful citizens. Careful tenant screening can weed out violent or dangerous individuals (be sure to check your local laws for any limitations on inquiring about a tenant's criminal record).
    • Don't accept cash rental payments. Cash is often used in criminal transactions because it's not traceable, so if you accept cash you might be enabling a tenant's bad behavior. Also, if word gets out that a landlord accepts cash for rent, the landlord might become a target for robbery.
    • Don't tolerate tenants' disruptive behavior. Include an explicit provision in the lease or rental agreement prohibiting drug dealing and other illegal activity. Promptly evict tenants who violate the clause.
    • Keep an eye on the property. Watch for suspicious activity, such as heavy traffic in and out of the rental premises, or strangers loitering on or around the property.
    • Encourage communication. It's good business practice to let tenants know that you want to hear of any issues at the rental—not only general repairs, but also any potential criminal activity. Promptly respond to tenant and neighbor complaints about drug dealing. Get advice from police immediately upon learning of a problem.
    • Research safety measures. Consult with security experts to do everything reasonable to discover and prevent illegal activity on the rental property.

Other Resources

Nolo's Every Landlord's Legal Guide contains detailed practical advice for landlords on topics such as preventing criminal activity and how to limit liability for criminal activity and other potential hazards at a rental.

Landlords can also check out Nolo's landlords section for tips and advice on how to run a legal, profitable, and enjoyable rental business.

Tenants can visit Nolo's tenant section to learn about their rights and responsibilities, along with how to deal with difficult landlords.

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