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California Landlord-Tenant: Lockout of Tenant (CA Civil Code section 789.3)

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In this second post on California residential Landlord-Tenant law, I’m going to talk about the techniques some residential landlords go through to force tenants to move. To see my first post, click here. As I explained previously, there is no license or test to become a residential landlord. Many people just put an ad on Craigslist and things generally go fine… until a problem results.

In general, for a landlord to get rid of a tenant, the landlord has to evict them through a court process called an Unlawful Detainer (UD) proceeding. A UD is not difficult and is, in many ways, a cookie-cutter or formulaic process. However, like any court process, it takes time and money that some landlords do not want to spend. One technique that sometimes occurs is the landlord resorts to brute force. For example:

  1. the landlord hires individuals to forcibly remove the tenant,
  2. the landlord changes the locks while the tenant is out and refuses to provide the new key, and/or
  3. the landlord turns off utilities in the hope that the tenant will simply move rather than live with no electricity or water.

I would imagine a landlord could think these would be simple and cheap alternatives to a court proceeding, but unfortunately, tactics like these are all highly illegal. The California law in question is California Civil Code section 789.3(a) and 789.3(b).

Civil code section 789.3(a) provides:

A landlord shall not with intent to terminate the
occupancy under any lease or other tenancy or estate at will, however
created, of property used by a tenant as his residence willfully
cause, directly or indirectly, the interruption or termination of any
utility service furnished the tenant, including, but not limited to,
water, heat, light, electricity, gas, telephone, elevator, or
refrigeration, whether or not the utility service is under the
control of the landlord.

Section 789(a) is pretty broad. For example, it prevents the landlord from not only directly terminating utilities, but indirectly as well. The “shall not with intent to terminate” part I bolded and underlined, though, is important because it can be a limitation. The mere fact the utilities were terminated is not enough. The landlord must have done so with the intention of forcing the tenant to move.

Section 789(b) goes over prohibitions on landlord (1) changing the locks to prevent the tenant from accessing the property, (2) removing doors or windows on the property, and (3) removing the tenant’s personal property from the premises without consent, court order, or as otherwise provided by law.

The most interesting part of Section 789 to me, however, is the penalty portion in Section 789(c) and 789(d). Unlike in most instances, California law actually specifies what fines and other penalties a landlord who, for instance, turns off his tenant’s utilities must pay. Under Section 789(c), an offending landlord must pay (1) the tenant’s actual damages, and (2) a fine of $100 per day of the violation, with a minimum amount of $250.

Section 789(d) is also quite powerful because it states that a tenant who sues for violations of section 789 (e.g. landlord changes locks, turns off utilities, etc) and wins is entitled to attorney’s fees and costs as well.

In my limited experience, I personally wish more tenants knew of section 789 generally, but specifically section 789(d). Many tenants have the intuitive sense that what their landlord is doing is wrong, but assume incorrectly that they can’t afford a lawyer so they have no choice but to accept what their landlord is doing.


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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.


  1. My landlord lock me out of the laundry room. We had an signed agreement I
    could use the laundry room once a week. After she served me a Thirty Day Notice.
    She put an lock on the door.
    She would lock the bathroom door for about three week.
    After the last time I call the Sheriff and they explain It could be open due to child proof
    on door.
    An I entitle to 789 penalty violation.?
    My Court date is 8/3/17.

    • Roommate rented room in private home, moved all their personal belongings out before end of rental month, took bedroom & house keys. I intend to return balance of unused rent & deposit. There’s nothing in house that belongs to renter. Can I rent out the room & change the locks? I live there.

  2. What can I do I took over a apartment that my cousin was rsnfing zhe was moving to LA I thought that the owner all about it .until onday he put a pay or quit notice on the door about subleasing when I brought to my cousins attention she locked me n my kids out plus I paid the rent already..what can I do leadley

  3. You’re so pro tenant. Well my fiancée is a good landlord. Unfortunately he is stuck with the tenant from hell. She stopped paying rent 3 MONTHS AGO!!! And stated she has no intention of paying! He cano not get this monster out of his house! The days of the slum lord are OVER!!! Laws should be changed so that good landlords can get squatters out of his home, without him, TGE landlord, having to jump through hoops and he at the mercy of a squatter!!! California laws are WRONG! They protect the criminal squatter! While treating the landlord like the criminal!!! I feel so bad for my fiancée. And he is beside himself. This is so sad!

    • Me too! Tenant from hell hasnt paid on 6 months. Unlawful detainer dismissed because tenant said he paid 500 and I said his rent was 600. He also picked a fight with our roomate and now has a restraining order on him. He came 5 days after another 3 day quit and took some stuff then said he would be back in the morning to get the rest. We have 3 witnesses and officers report .We locked him out 3 days later , now 11 days later he sends a text that hes not leaving. Well hes locked out and NOT getting in. Gonna box his stuff today and send a pic of it on my porch. Sue me, go ahead loser, he owes me 3k and the police are tired of him. Civil.matter now, he will get in over my dead body. He left so many C” notes to the last tenants, arguments, and cops here probably 6 times in past few months..So over it!! Ugh

      • Honestly if the guy has a copy of his lease or whatever proving he lives there he can legally break in to get back inTo the house and the police can watch him do it and not be able to stop him. He has a right to be in his home..which happens to be yours as well. So it won’t be over your dead body it’ll be with a baseball bat to whatever window he fits into best if he’s smart enough to read some tenants rights websites.

  4. This was in the probate case and executor never waited for the sheriff to do the eviction she had two no-shows when she was supposed to be there in the sheriff tried 2 times but she didn’t throw up two days after the second time she changed the locks on me on my property was still inside she refused to give me access to the property I believe this is a strong case for seven eight nine point three and I need someone to represent me that I went to the police I went to court services and they all told me to sue in small claims court I don’t know how to approach that I don’t know if that’s the correct information

  5. Hello my landlord wasnt the actual owner of my property thus giving us a bogus rental agreement we were asked to show proof of residency upon doing so we were allowed to stay 2 days later the local law enforcement came with 10 officers and told us to leave after doing so my house was robbed and they said that they had actually changed the locks themselves to prevent us from gaining access to the house code enforcemrnt official came to the house and turned off and locked our electricity also baricading the front door and the side gate with a power drill in which belonged to me and i have a video of him doing so

  6. I think people who rent rooms should be hed accountable to these same rules. So someones a lodger not a tenant if they rent a room in your house? You still must give notice, in writing, and properly serve it. Cant just lock doors and say “whoops you’re out”!! Oral written or implied lease should still allow everyone fair rights to inhabit a home. Landlords can be arbitrary and sneaky and down right cruel and the LAW protects from thier idiocy. Or at least we hope it would.

  7. I’m stuck with squatters as well. Real squatters! These people just move in and take over. My life has been hell because of the stupid California laws that protect these scum sucking jerks…totally unbelievable. The laws need to be rewritten- especially for people who just move into your property, never pay a penny and proceed to destroy it. Squatters should have no rights…..they are trespassing. Period!

    • Same thing happened to me. The end result is I lost .y job, my home, everything I ever owned, my section 8 and was badly hurt after being put out, all because of squatters. I feel your anguish, good luck. I’m with you 100% if there is a way or petition to change the squatter laws.


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