Domestic violence protocol for rentals varies by state

Rent it Right

Q: The police were called to an apartment in one of our rental properties. They were responding to a situation of domestic violence, which by all accounts was loud and nasty. But they made no arrests, and we’re sure it’s going to happen again. Aren’t the police obliged to take action? –Peter F.

A: It’s difficult to know why the police acted as they did without learning more about the situation. For example, despite the noise and commotion, there may not have been actual physical violence. But that’s not to say that domestic violence requires physical contact — credible threats can also constitute family abuse.

When police respond to these situations, they are often placed in very difficult situations. Sometimes the victim is too afraid to honestly describe the problem; sometimes, the victim will deny the whole episode in hopes of sparing the family (and the family’s breadwinner) entanglement in court. Because of these difficulties, some states specifically address a law enforcement officer’s duties when responding to a domestic violence situation.

Georgia, for example, has identified the typical problems. Under Georgia law, an officer cannot arrest an offender based solely on the request of the victim; and conversely, the victim’s plea that the offender not be arrested cannot play a role. Officers may not threaten to arrest everyone, with the intent of discouraging future calls for help. In particular, officers must attempt to identify he primary offender; and they must make a written report of their findings, including whether children were involved and witnessed the event. (O.C.G.A. Section 17-4-20.1.)

The next step for the victim in the situation you describe may be to ask a court for a restraining order, which will provide some protection (violators are can be held in contempt of court, and even charged criminally). Or the victim may want to move out. Be sure to check your state’s laws on landlords’ responsibilities when a domestic violence victim asks to leave early — many states require the landlord to excuse that tenant, without further liability for rent. Some states also allow you to evict only the troublemaker, as long as you have enough evidence to prove that this person is violating the law (assaulting someone) on your property.

Q: We moved out of our apartment in a bit of a rush, and didn’t realize that we had left some valuable things in a closet. When we figured it out and contacted the landlord, we learned that he had disposed of it! This was valuable stuff. Do we have any recourse? –Tom and Sharon

A: Your options will depend on how your state handles the issue of abandoned tenant property. The approaches vary considerably, from some, like California, with detailed procedures that make landlords contact tenants, store their property, sell it at public auction, keep the proceeds for the tenants’ benefit (minus expenses), and if the tenants don’t claim the money, give the money to the county! Other states require notification and storage; others allow landlords to dispose of the property as they see fit, when they see fit. So to know whether your landlord violated any abandoned property law for your state, you’ll need to find out what your statutes have to say on the subject.

Most states that address the issue make it clear that landlords need not follow the procedures when dealing with obvious garbage or junk. But problems can arise here, as you can imagine — one person’s ratty overcoat is another person’s prized fur from Aunt Ellen.

Some states also differentiate between vacancies that were voluntary, and those that resulted from eviction. In some states, landlords’ duties are greater when the property was left following a voluntary vacancy — perhaps legislators figured that evicted tenants were "in the wrong" and don’t deserve the same level of care as those who left on their own. But other states take a different approach, giving evicted tenants the same or greater protection, maybe thinking that those who leave voluntarily had all the time in the world to gather their belongings (and that if they left something behind, it was probably intentional), whereas those who are evicted have a greater chance of inadvertently leaving valuable possessions unclaimed.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord’s Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant’s Legal Guide." She can be reached at janet@inman.com.

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