I am often asked if a landlord should change the locks, lock the tenant out, or otherwise prevent the tenant from gaining access to the rental unit. The short answer is no, unless the tenant has already moved out, returned the keys, and has abandoned personal property.
Locking a tenant out or otherwise preventing the tenant from gaining access to the rental property carries both criminal and civil liability for the landlord. On the criminal side, a landlord who locks the tenant out is guilty of a misdemeanor and faces a potential sentence of up to 90 days in jail. I do not know of a single landlord who would want to do jail time because of a tenant.
On the civil side, the landlord could be sued for triple damages (or $500, whatever is greater) and reasonable attorneys fees. In other words, a landlord who locks the tenant out may have to pay for that tenant's hotel bill, if the tenant has to stay in a hotel because the landlord cut off the tenants access to the rental property.
If the tenant has moved out and abandoned personal property in the rental unit, then the landlord has a responsibility to secure that property under Minnesota law. In that case, the landlord might be able to change the locks, as a way of securing the personal property abandoned by the tenant.
However, if there is any doubt that the tenant has moved out and abandoned the property, then I would recommend that the landlord bring an eviction action against the tenant to recover the right of possession to the rental unit. Unless the tenant has relinquished possession by giving the keys to the landlord, the safest course of action would be to evict the tenant to recover the right of possession.
Every landlord – tenant situation is unique, and I recommend that landlords talk to an attorney experienced in evictions and landlord tenant law before taking action based on this blog post. To that end, I invite landlords to give me a call at 763-450-9494 to discuss their unique situation. I have represented many landlords in conciliation court, but typically do not represent tenants.
WARNING: The information contained in this blog post does not constitute legal advice and may not be applicable to your situation. Tim is licensed to practice law only in Minnesota, and the information contained in this blog post may not apply to jurisdictions outside of Minnesota. Further, reading this blog post does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and Baland Law Office, P.L.L.C. You should always discuss your situation with an attorney before taking any action based on what you may read in this blog. To that end, please call (763) 450-9494 to set up an appointment to discuss your situation.