Criminal Liability Exposure for Landlords

The rental business is a serious business and is increasingly under legal, media, and community scrutiny. Landlords face risks of civil liability from tenants, tenant associations, and government agencies on a variety of fronts, but landlords also face criminal liability in some circumstances. Here are a few important highlights to understand about a landlord’s criminal liability exposure.

Illegal Drug Activity

Under F.S. 893.1351, if a landlord rents a place, structure, or trailer (“structure”) to a tenant who the landlord knows will use that structure to traffic or sell controlled substances, the landlord is guilty of a felony in the third degree.

Unfortunately, encountering illegal drug activity in rental property occurs more frequently than one would hope. Landlords must deal with that situation properly and not neglect to enforce the tenant’s obligations regarding conducting illegal drug activity on the premises, If the landlord has knowledge that the tenant is using the structure to traffic or sell controlled substances, the landlord faces criminal liability. To be clear, “turning a blind eye” to illegal drug activity on the premises may not be a good enough defense.

To manage the premises properly, the landlord needs to inspect the property routinely and take notes and photos of any activity suspected to be illegal. If the landlord observes evidence of illegal drug activity, the landlord should report the matter to police authorities and take proper steps to terminate the lease agreement. 

To enforce the tenant’s obligations under the lease agreement and F.S. 83.52, the landlord must give proper notice terminate. The notice must be legally sufficient to terminate the tenancy, so it important to seek legal advice to ensure proper notice is delivered. Otherwise, the eviction action may fail. 

Landlords of multifamily dwellings can take additional steps to discourage illegal activity on their property as well, such as posting “No Trespassing” signs, using a properly-worded lease agreement to enforce tenant obligations regarding visitors and guests, having sufficiently lit parking and common areas, installing video surveillance on the property, routinely inspecting the community for suspicious activity, and implementing policies and procedures on how to handle suspected illegal activity.

Theft of Tenant’s Property

Landlords also face criminal liability for theft of tenant’s property where the landlord illegally deprives the tenant of their personal property. 

In general, landlords are prohibited from removing the tenant’s property from the premises except upon the tenant’s surrender or abandonment of the premises, death of the last remaining tenant, or execution of a writ of possession. See F.S. 83.67(5). Landlords are also required to follow certain procedures to dispose of a tenant’s personal property after the landlord has taken lawful possession of the premises. Id.

While most situations involving the landlord’s wrongful taking or conversion of the tenant’s personal property would unlikely rise to criminal liability (and thus would require the tenant to sue the landlord in civil court, e.g. civil theft, conversion), if the landlord’s actions are egregious enough, it could rise to criminal liability, and the sheriff’s office, police department, and state attorneys could potentially build a case for criminal theft if the landlord’s actions rose to the level of criminal “mens rea”. 

Therefore, landlords should educate themselves on legal requirements for handling the tenant’s security deposit and personal property to avoid both civil and criminal liability.


Pursuant to F.S. 83.53, landlords are required to give notice of accessing the rental premises at least 24 hours’ notice to the tenant, except in cases of emergency for the preservation of the property, in which case, landlords may enter the property without having to give at least 24 hours’ notice. If a landlord violates legal notice requirements to enter the premises, the landlord subjects himself to civil and criminal liability.

Like the discussion above regarding “theft”, the landlord more likely faces civil liability for accessing the premises without lawful authority, but if the facts are egregious enough, (e.g. repeated unlawful access or accessing with the purpose to harass, accessing the premises with intent to threaten or harm), the landlord could face criminal trespass. 

F.S. 810.08(1) defines criminal “trespass” as:

Whoever, without being authorized, licensed, or invitedwillfully enters or remains in any structure or conveyance, or, having been authorized, licensed, or invited, is warned by the [] lessee of the premises, or by a person authorized by the [] lessee, to depart and refuses to do so, commits the offense of trespass in a structure or conveyance.

Under strict definitions here, if the tenant warned the owner not to enter the structure and the landlord willfully enters the structure “without being authorized, licensed, or invited”, the landlord could be in violation of criminal trespass.

Of course, whether the landlord is “authorized” is a big issue in these situations, so if the tenant were to so warn the landlord from entering the structure, the landlord should seek legal advice immediately to remedy that situation to avoid civil and criminal liability. In fact, there are legal methods to enforce the landlord’s remedy when the tenant unreasonably withholds consent to the landlord’s entry into the rental unit.


Landlords must be always aware of their civil and criminal liability exposure. Make no mistake, the more egregious the landlord’s actions, the higher the risk of police and prosecutors paying attention, so do not assume that your misdeeds only carry civil liability. Implementing proper procedures and training, based on legal considerations especially, is a necessity to do good business and protect yourself. Having a landlord attorney help guide you in your rental business and practices also just makes good sense.

Property Management Law Solutions, LLC is a Florida law firm that specializes in landlord-tenant law and is a landlord-only law firm. We provide statewide services including evictions, consultation plans, education and training, membership plans, lease agreement plans and more. If you are a landlord or property manager, contact us today or subscribe to one of our online membership plans.