April 27, 2013 • By Dennis Beaver

Last week, we told you about Ron, a naval officer based at NAS Lemoore who rents an apartment in Kingsburg from a landlord You and the Law has tangled with over the past few years. He deserves an Academy Award in the category “Crooked Landlords Who Rip Off Our Military Personnel.”

Ron’s situation is far more common than many tenants realize or would ever want to tolerate — and hopefully after reading our story, they will take steps to protect themselves: The landlord snooping around inside when you are away is a violation of both the California Civil Code and likely a criminal trespass as well.

“There were just very odd, subtle things which appeared not quite right. For example, mail — which had been in a neat stack on my desk — was now spilled on its side. Food items seemed to be missing from the fridge, and there was a dirty shoe print in the entry way,” he pointed out.

“I did not accuse the owner of violating my privacy, but politely asked if anyone had been in the apartment while I was away. He admitted that did occur, ‘in order to repair a water leak.’ But I have reason to doubt his statements and want to get out of my 18-month lease,” the naval officer told us.

First step — Establish proof of illegal entry

As this landlord prays to the Lord of Greenbacks, we need a compelling reason showing that it is in his interest to make Ron happily go away. Video or photos would leave no wiggle room as to who entered.

Technically it’s easy, legal and inexpensive, with virtually invisible video surveillance equipment — such as a Nanny Cam.

So let’s assume that our reader captures video of the landlord or others in his apartment without complying with California’s notice requirements, and that there is no emergency or other justification. Now what?

Advice from a private investigator — What not to say

We discussed Ron’s situation with Bakersfield private detective Riley Parker, who has a cautionary word: “Discovering that your privacy has been invaded will make you angry. Ron would of course be tempted to call the landlord, and say something like, ‘Would you like see pictures of yourself in my apartment, going through my things? If you do, I’ve got a great idea; let’s meet at the Kingsburg Police Department and you can explain it all to the nice officer who is going to arrest you for trespassing.

“’Or, if you don’t want to find yourself wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, why don’t we have a little chat at Diane’s Café, say around noon today. I’ll treat you to their Swedish pancakes, and you sign a release, ending my lease, and don’t forget to bring cash for return of the security deposit. Agree, and we all go our merry ways, or refuse, and you know what happens next.’”

“Of course, that would probably feel so good to say, but could land Ron in real hot water. While this conversation would seem to make sense — pay or I’m reporting you to the authorities — it is Ron who could be arrested and charged with what we commonly call extortion or blackmail, as it is defined in the California Penal Code, Sections 518-527,” Parker notes.

“The crime is attempting to obtain money or property — even if it is actually owed — by threats, force or fear.  But it goes beyond simply threatening physical harm: Accuse or threaten to accuse someone of a crime, exposing criminal activity, or where we private investigators are often involved, revealing a secret affecting that person — such as an affair — you’re dealing with what can often become ugly indeed,” Parker observes.

What can Ron legally do?

The conditional statement — If you don’t do this, I am going to the police — this is the problem. Legally, Ron could say, “Can we meet and talk about my tenancy? I’ve got some concerns and we both want a good relationship.”

Then, at the meeting — with Ron being sure to have a witness or two — he shows the video, asks for an explanation, but makes no reference to this being a violation of law or any threat of reporting it. If followed by a request to end the tenancy and return of the security deposit, Ron is safe.

If the landlord refuses, Ron — but preferably his attorney — sends a letter, mentioning the video, insisting on terminating the lease, but without reference to criminal activity.

The final choice is to go directly to the Kingsburg Police Department. We have advised our reader of these options, urge that he seek counsel, and will let you know the outcome.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.