After a rental eviction, it’s not just the tenant that is forced to leave or vacate; the tenant’s property has to go, too. And just like there are right and wrong ways to evict tenants, there are right and wrong ways to deal with their property. Handling an evicted tenant’s property incorrectly can result in the landlord being liable to the tenant.
The tenant’s property is the tenant’s property. The landlord has no right to it—even if the tenant owes the landlord money, such as back rent. If the landlord takes or confiscates the tenant’s property, the landlord is guilty of theft, and can be sued. (The landlord might even be subject to criminal penalties in extreme situations.)
If it’s wrong to take someone else’s belongings, it’s equally wrong to destroy or throw them away. Throwing out a tenant’s furniture or clothing will result in the landlord being liable for the value of the lost or destroyed property.
If property is abandoned by its rightful owner, someone else—like a landlord—may be able to claim it. However, simply because the tenant was evicted doesn’t mean he or she abandoned his or her belongings. Consider: if the tenant’s been locked out of his or her home, and possibly has nowhere to go, he or she may have had no opportunity to take the property, no matter what he or she wanted to do.
How can a landlord know that property is abandoned? In the easy cases, there’s a letter or note from the tenant saying something like, “Take it—it’s yours!” When that’s not the case, all states have a mechanism or procedure by which property can be considered abandoned, particularly in eviction cases. While the rules differ by state, they always involve waiting for awhile—weeks or months—to see if the owner claims the property, while also taking some reasonable steps to find the owner or ask him or her to take the property.
State law will specify a landlord’s rights and obligations. In some states, in some circumstances, the landlord may put the tenant’s property at the edge of his or her property; it then becomes the tenant’s responsibility to claim it. However, that’s a minority of the time: usually the law and/or the situation (e.g. urban living) takes away this option. In all cases, the landlord has to safely store the property for a reasonable time. When the landlord does so, he or she will be permitted to recover moving, storage, etc. costs from the tenant if the tenant wants the property back.
Eviction law is governed by state law, and so is post-eviction law—e.g. what you can do with the tenant’s property. Generally speaking, the landlord will have to store it, at least for a time; however, an attorney can help both the landlord and the tenant understand the exact rules, rights, and obligations pertaining to property have a rental eviction.