AG Neronha warns of illegal ‘self-help evictions’ amid COVID-19 crisis


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — While many Rhode Islanders may be behind on their bills right now and Gov. Gina Raimondo has repeatedly said no one can be legally evicted, Attorney General Peter Neronha issued a warning Thursday about so-called “self-help evictions.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all non-essential court proceedings are suspended until at least May 17, which includes evictions.

Under state law, landlords need a court order to be able to evict a tenant, according to Neronha.

“You have to file paperwork with the court, and then you’re entitled to a hearing,” he said. “You have to give notice to the tenant and the landlord, and the district court then decides, ‘is there a reason why this lease should be terminated early?'”

Neronha said this law has been around for a long time in Rhode Island.

“The rationale behind the law is that we don’t want to create the person-to-person conflict that may happen in that very tense or sometimes tense situation,” he said.

With the courts closed for now, Neronha said his office has been receiving reports of illegal “self-help evictions.”

“This came to our attention through some folks we deal with sort of in the course of our everyday work: The Center for Justice and Rhode Island Legal Services,” Neronha said. “We’ve collaborated with Rhode Island Legal Services quite a bit actually in our expungement clinics and other spaces.”

“We’re in regular contact with them, and they had given us some real-life situations that cause me to have enough concern that I thought we ought to try to get ahead of this,” he continued.

A self-help eviction is when a landlord tries to go around the required court process, Neronha said.

“You can’t just lock them out. You can’t just throw them out. You can’t put their belongings on the street,” he added. “What this does is it prevents people in this situation from taking the law into their own hands.”

In an effort to prevent these evictions from happening, Neronha said he gave direction to law enforcement agencies.

“The reason for issuing guidance to the police departments was to let them know sort of what the parameters are of the law so they could respond and we could get them guidance on how to handle those situations,” he explained.

PDF: Read Neronha’s letter to letter to chiefs of police »

Civil and criminal penalties could apply in these situations, according to Neronha. If you’re a victim of a self-help eviction, he said to contact his office at (401) 274-4400, your local police department, Rhode Island Legal Services or the Center for Justice for help.

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