There was quite a spectacle out in Redlands this morning, as live TV crews swarmed into the apartment of San Bernardino shooters Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik.
Reporters picked through the deceased terror suspects' belongings, including family photographs, identification documents and other effects. Almost immediately, this raised ethical concerns.
One of the concerns was whether reporters should be allowed into a crime scene. There was some back-and-forth between the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department and the FBI, but it appears that the authorities took what they wanted and turned the apartment over to the landlord.
The next question was whether the landlord had given the reporters access. The reporters on the scene seemed to think he had, but the landlord himself said that they had barged in.
Both of those concerns miss the real point. There is indeed something queasy-making about this situation, but if people are having a hard time putting their finger on it, it's probably because they're not used to thinking about tenants' rights, especially if those tenants are deceased terrorists.
Nevertheless, under California law, a tenant's estate — not the landlord — has the right to possess the apartment after death. That means, in all probability, that the landlord had no right to enter the apartment or to allow anyone to enter it.
This is from California Tenants, a guide to landlord-tenant issues published by the California Department of Consumer Affairs.
Suppose that a tenant who has a tenancy for a specified term (for example, a one-year lease) dies. The tenancy continues until the end of the lease term, despite the tenant’s death. Responsibility for the rest of the lease term passes to the tenant’s executor or administrator.
Now suppose instead that the tenant had a month-to-month tenancy. In this case, the tenancy is terminated (ended) by notice of the tenant’s death. The tenancy ends on the 30th day following the tenant’s last payment of rent before the tenant's death.
This comes from a California court case, Miller & Desatnik Management Company v. Bullock (1990). In that case, a Santa Monica woman was fighting an eviction notice. She claimed to have assumed tenancy of a month-to-month lease upon the death of the original tenant, her daughter, which gave her the right to stay in the unit under Santa Monica tenant-protection laws. The court ruled against her, finding that the original tenant's death served as a notice of termination of the lease.
We therefore hold that under section 1934, a month-to-month tenancy is terminated by notice of the tenant's death; further, the tenancy is terminated as of the 30th day following the tenant's last payment of rent before the tenant's death. No further notice, for example under section 1946, is required.fn. 4 This preserves the tenant's or her assignee's right to [221 Cal. App. 3d Supp. 19] possess the premises for the remainder of the month… (emphasis added)
As every tenant knows, a landlord can enter the property while the tenancy is ongoing, but only for specific reasons. From California Civil Code Section 1954:
1954. (a) A landlord may enter the dwelling unit only in the following cases:
(1) In case of emergency.
(2) To make necessary or agreed repairs, decorations, alterations or improvements, supply necessary or agreed services, or exhibit the dwelling unit to prospective or actual purchasers, mortgagees, tenants, workers or contractors or to make an inspection pursuant to subdivision (f) of Section 1950.5.
(3) When the tenant has abandoned or surrendered the premises.
(4) Pursuant to court order.
A tenancy is only “abandoned” if rent has been unpaid for at least 14 days and the landlord has given notice of abandonment. Note that “to let TV reporters pick through the tenants' belongings” does not appear on this list.
So, assuming that the suspects paid their rent for December, nobody except the police and those designated by their estate should be in that apartment. Clearly no reporter is going to stop to look up tenant law in this situation, but that is in fact what it says.
Update: Somebody knows the law:
Redlands Police Chief Mark Garcia said landlord didn't have right to open up residence leased by SB shooters. Said site has been secured.
— David Montero (@DaveMontero) December 4