Legal • May 1, 2005
Adjusting Your Rental Application to Cope with Megan’s Law
By David Wilson
A number of apartment associations recently approached the state Legislature with their concerns about renting to individuals whose names appear on the so-called “Megan’s Law” list. Many of their proposals, however, run the risk of needlessly creating more landlord liability, and also of creating an ugly, government-mandated program of ostracization. Fortunately, there are simple strategies that any intelligent landlord can employ, right now, for dealing with Megan’s Law issues in a reasonable and humane manner.
“Megan’s Law,” or Penal Code Section 290, requires people convicted of certain crimes to register with police as “sex offenders.” Over time, the list of crimes requiring registration has grown and grown, so that it now includes everything from misdemeanor indecent exposure to the most violent forcible rapes. (Section 290 registration should not be confused with the other, far more limited, law that creates the designation of “Sexually Violent Predator” for a far smaller number of individuals.) Even though the list of registrants is published on the internet, Section 290 strictly limits the use of that information, including preventing it from being used to deny a person housing.
The three concerns most often raised about renting to 290 registrants can be summed up as liability, liability, and profit. More specifically: liability for renting to a 290 registrant who later victimizes another tenant; liability for refusing to rent to (or even evicting) a 290 registrant; and finally, loss of profit if other tenants move out because they refuse to live in proximity of a 290 registrant. Whether these are grave risks is a matter of debate; we know of no actual instances of these scenarios arising, but they are certainly possible.
Hopefully, all of your leases already include standard language advising your tenants that the Megan’s Law list is available through the local police department or via the internet. That’s an important initial safeguard that properly places the burden of education on other tenants.
You may also wish, however, to add a question to your written rental application (you are using one, and saving it, right?) that asks whether the applicant has ever been convicted of a felony. If the applicant answers “yes,” you may want to inquire further about the nature and date of the conviction. Among other things, a recent crime involving dishonesty might give you a quite reasonable basis for refusing to rent to someone.
Can you really expect an applicant to answer such a question truthfully? Perhaps not. The applicant may be a crook and a liar. Or the applicant might be someone trying to live a straight life who has learned the hard way that many employers and landlords simply won’t consider anyone who has committed a crime, even after that person has “paid his debt” to society.
But once the applicant chooses to lie, you will have acquired a valuable tool for managing that tenancy in the event you ever find out about the lie. Should you find it necessary to take the ultimate step of eviction, the fact that the tenant was dishonest in his or her original application—rather than the actual information lied about—should give you a sound basis for doing so.
As usual, remember that this article, like all others printed by BPOA, is educational and is not intended to be legal advice. For specific legal advice on your own situation, you should consult an attorney.