Illegal Eviction Procedures in California

Lock-outs and utility shutoffs are just two types of illegal self-help evictions that can land a California landlord in hot water.

By , Attorney UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated 4/08/2024

California landlords must follow specific rules and procedures when evicting a tenant. The state forbids landlords from taking the law into their own hands. Learn what's considered an illegal eviction in California and what you can do if you think your landlord has illegally evicted you.

Types of Illegal Evictions in California

An eviction—the physical removal of a tenant from a rental—is the final step in a legal process that involves the termination of a tenancy and, if necessary, a lawsuit called an "unlawful detainer" filed by the landlord. If the landlord wins the lawsuit, the court will issue an order for a law enforcement officer to handle the actual eviction.

California prohibits landlords from taking any steps to remove a tenant from a rental that aren't explicitly allowed by law. Namely, a landlord can't force a tenant out by:

  • interrupting or cutting utilities
  • changing the lock or barring entry
  • removing outside doors or windows, or
  • removing the tenant's personal property or furnishings

Regardless of whether the utility is paid for by the landlord or tenant, the landlord can't cut off water, heat, light, electricity, gas, telephone, elevator, or refrigeration services with the intent of getting the tenant to move out.

(Cal. Civ. Code § 789.3 (2024).)


A more subtle way that some landlords might try to illegally evict a tenant is through various forms of harassment. Landlords in California can't do any of the following in an effort to get a tenant to move out:

  • take away or steal your property or money either physically or through the use of fraud
  • take away or steal your property or money by force or a threat of force
  • use threatening or menacing conduct that violates the tenant's right to enjoy the rental without interference from the landlord (known as "quiet use and enjoyment" of the rental)
  • abuse the tenant's right to privacy by illegally entering the rental, or
  • disclose or threaten to disclose information about the immigration or citizenship status of a tenant, another occupant of the rental, or any person that the landlord knows is associated with the tenant.

(Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1940.2; 1940.35(2024).)

Tenants who successfully sue their landlord for the first four forms of harassment noted above are entitled to receive up to $2,000 per violation. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1940.2(b) (2024).) If a landlord illegally discloses or threatens to disclose a tenant's immigration information, the landlord might be required to pay 6 to 12 times the monthly rent to the tenant. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1940.35(b)(1) (2024).)

How to Sue Over an Illegal Eviction

A tenant who is illegally evicted can either sue the landlord (either in civil court or small claims court) or use the illegal eviction as a defense or countersuit to an eviction lawsuit.

After trying to illegally evict a tenant, the landlord might decide to go to court and bring an eviction lawsuit against the tenant. Even if the eviction lawsuit is valid (most likely because the tenant failed to pay rent or violated the lease), the tenant could still bring evidence that the landlord tried to illegally evict the tenant and then receive damages from the landlord for the illegal eviction.

If the tenant sues the landlord through the civil court, then the tenant can also ask the court for an injunction (or order) against the landlord prohibiting the landlord from illegally evicting the tenant again. Injunctions are not, however, allowed as a remedy in small claims court.

How Much a Court Could Award a Tenant After an Illegal Eviction

A landlord who illegally evicts a tenant in California is liable to the tenant for damages. Whether the tenant sues in civil court or small claims court, the tenant might recover the following amounts:

  • actual damages (out-of-pocket losses), such as motel bills if the tenant has to find a temporary place to live because the landlord cut off utility service, and
  • punitive damages of up to $100 per day that the landlord is in violation of the law (but not less than $250 in punitive damages for each separate violation).

Repeat violations (as long as they're not committed at the same time as the initial violation) are considered separate causes of action, so the tenant might be eligible for a separate award of damages.

Along with actual and punitive damages, the court can also award the tenant court costs and attorneys' fees. The tenant can also ask the court to order injunctive relief—a court order telling the landlord to stop performing a certain act. (Cal. Civ. Code § 789.3 (2024).)

Additional Resources

If you decide to sue your landlord over an illegal eviction, check out California law. See the Laws and Legal Research section of this site for advice on finding and reading statutes. The California courts also offer a self-help guide on eviction and housing.

It's also a good idea to get advice from a local tenants' rights group in California. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) website includes information on tenant advocates for each state.

Finally, although you can sue for illegal eviction on your own, consider at least consulting with a local landlord-tenant attorney. In order to prove illegal eviction, you'll need to present solid evidence of the landlord's actions, which can be difficult to do without any legal training or advice. If you can't afford an attorney, check with a local legal aid office to see what your options are.

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