Rent it Right
A wide range of sexual offenders may be required to register; some states, for example, include people convicted of sodomy, consensual sex with a person under 18, or distribution of pornographic materials. Disturbing crimes perhaps, but not necessarily the type that should have you worried that your neighbor will be lurking in the bushes.
The first question to consider here is whether you had a legal right to look into this database. Although there is great variation among the states as to how the registries are organized and how specific the information that's disclosed, in general none of them are intended to be used in a punitive way, or idly perused for information that the viewer need not know.
For example, California law requires that viewers consult the registry only in order to "protect a person at risk." In fact, California law goes even further, by prohibiting employers or landlords from using the registry for the purpose of denying employment or housing. Massachusetts, New Jersey and Nevada impose some restrictions, too.
Although California law imposes these restrictions on landlords (with respect to future tenants) and employers, it practically invites people who are buying a home or about to rent one to check the sex offenders' database! Home sellers must disclose to potential buyers, in the sales contract, the existence of the state database!
And landlords must include the same information in a lease. That's something you should also keep in mind if you think you might sell the place soon.
Contract language or not, plenty of buyers (or their real estate agents) are savvy enough to take a look at the database, which means your investment may be less valuable until that neighbor moves away.
No doubt you are also wondering whether you'd need to disclose this information to prospective renters. Again, that will depend on state law -- and there's an interesting California wrinkle here, too. Landlords, like sellers, must include a clause in their rental documents alerting the tenant of the database.
But suppose your tenant doesn't check for himself, or you don't live in California? Must you disclose? Suppose your applicants specifically ask whether you're aware of any offenders living nearby. Because of what you know, you would have to answer truthfully or risk having the lease fall apart if the renters learn later that you misled them on a point that they made clear was important to them.
But in the absence of a direct question, must you volunteer the information? That depends on whether it's so important and relevant that any rational person in the shoes of the applicant would deem such information essential to their decision. And the answer to that question will depend heavily on the facts of the situation.
In California, as mentioned, landlords (like sellers) must disclose the existence and location of the database in the lease, which suggests that renters who are concerned about such matters have some responsibility to check for themselves.
Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord's Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant's Legal Guide." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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