Montana Renters Could Face Jail for Skipping Out on Rent

Republican Sen. Roger Webb of Billings also wants courts to help landlords collect back rent

By Bobby Caina Calvan, Associated Press

HELENA — Renters who skip out on leases could face criminal charges under a bill introduced Tuesday by a Montana landlord who also is a member of the state legislature.

Republican Sen. Roger Webb, who owns scores of rental units in Billings and maintains hundreds of others, also wants courts to help landlords collect back rent.

But critics told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that the bills go too far and could subject tenants to debtor’s prisons.

Webb and his wife, Peggy, who is a member of the state House, have proposed a slate of bills that could shift the balance of power between tenants and their landlords — from placing restrictions on locks to allowing landlords to use email as official notification for evictions.

Webb said he was carrying the bills on behalf of the Montana Landlords Association.

On Tuesday, the Judicial Committee opened discussion of two proposals being pushed by Webb: a bill that would subject a tenant who abandons a rental unit to criminal charges of theft and a bill that would require courts to collect financial judgments on behalf of landlords.

“If you abandon that property without prior notice, it would constitute theft,” Webb said.

“If I fill my car up with gas and drive off without pay, that’s theft. We have these properties, and we expect to be paid,” he said, asserting that asserting that current laws put property owners at a disadvantage against bad tenants who skip out on rent.

But tenant-rights advocates said the bill would go far beyond trying to act against those who skip out on rent. They said it would also criminalize the breaking of a rental agreement by tenants who are current on rent but must break a lease because they need to move away.

It could also put poor people in a deeper bind, they said.

“This bill if passed would result in the reestablishment of debtors prisons, which were abolished in this country about 200 years ago,” said Amy Hall, an attorney with the Montana Legal Services Association in Helena.

“Of course the tenant should pay the rent. Nobody’s arguing with that. Just as the landlord should comply with the landlord’s obligations to make repairs to accommodate disabilities or other obligations. It’s noteworthy … that the bill provides extreme remedies to a landlord for a tenant’s nonpayment of rent, but does not provide comparable remedies to a tenant who has been wronged by a landlord.”

College students raised concern that the bills could turn young renters into felons for skipping out on rent. “You make a dumb mistake when you’re 18 years old, or 19 years old, and find yourself in over your head and you could get a felony slapped on your record for the rest of your life,” said Andy Bixler, a lobbyist for the Montana Associated Students.

The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear four more tenant-landlord bills on Wednesday.

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