Can a Landlord Legally use Security Cameras for Petty Purposes?
April 22, 2006 1:12 PM   Subscribe

Anyone know the laws regarding video surveillance in apartment complexes? My crazy landlord has taken to using security cameras in the commons area to harass tenants...

Our complex got a new live-in manager a couple months ago. Since then the mailbox area has been inundated with trash because the landlord doesn't like emptying trash cans used for junk mail. I came home recently and noticed the trash cans were gone. Assuming new trash cans were on the way, I put my junk mail on the top of the mail boxes, expecting others to continue the stack until new trash cans arrived. Within 20 minutes the landlord taped the mail to my door with a bitchy note. I was livid, and taped it to his door with a note to "Junk Mail Matlock" listing several problems more important than this one. He then put a long rambling rant in the commons area with a list of completely new rules and demands, with plenty of caps, underlines, and exclamation points. He demanded all improperly stored items be removed within 48 hours - (without any time stamp). He also threatened "YOU ARE BEING WATCHED BY VIDEO CAMERAS!!" Is it legal or proper for a landlord to use a security system to monitor the habits of law-abiding tenants? Isn't this an improper use of a security system? Can you suddenly give 48 hours notice on a new policy? This guy is a piece of work, and this only scratches the surface, but I have a copy of his rant and I'm wondering if he's breaking any laws by using a security system for petty purposes.
posted by Blingo to Law & Government (14 answers total)
IANAL, but it seems to me that a building's owner has responsibility and discretion over the building's shared areas. In the same way that they could replace the carpet or install new light fixtures of their own accord, they can probably install a surveilance system. And since they'd own the space and the surveillance system, I can imagine that they'd be free to garner whatever information from the system they like.

I think what would stop most building owners/managers from behaving this way would be manners and/or the waste of time it represents. Not the law.

As for new policies, your agreement with the building should address your rights and responsibilites re: the shared areas, and a contract should stipulate time-frames for making and/or announcing changes.

Have any tenants spoken face-to-face with the manager about their concerns?
posted by chudmonkey at 1:26 PM on April 22, 2006

Is it legal or proper...
Proper? Not really.
Legal? Yes.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:47 PM on April 22, 2006

I'm wondering if he's breaking any laws by using a security system for petty purposes.

Maybe you've already considered or attempted this, but have you tried contacting the police? Not calling 911, but, say, going down to the station (or calling the non-emergency number) and asking to speak to someone about this? (You'd want to have a copy of your lease in hand if you do this, as their most likely first question will be "What does it say in the lease that you signed?")
posted by Gator at 1:54 PM on April 22, 2006

A manager isn't a landlord -- only the landlord's representative. So first thing is to contact the landlord directly and respectfully apprise him/her of what Mr. Piece Of Work is up to. The landlord needs to know what's being said/done on his behalf because (a) the landlord is liable for problems his employee causes, and (b) the landlord is the one who will lose money if tenants are driven away by his employee's reckless idiocy. Any responsible landlord should be grateful to have been alerted that his employee is acting against his financial interests.

Nevertheless, make your report in writing, or else verbal with immediate written backup. That way if the landlord doesn't act, you can show that you made a reasonable attempt to get things resolved through proper channels; or if the landlord reacts by trying to evict you instead, you've got evidence that it's a retaliatory eviction (illegal). IANAL, but if the landlord didn't step in quickly to resolve this foolishness, yeah I'd say contact the police and/or good landlord-tenant attorney.

Good luck. Spying on the tenants, even when legal, is tackytackytacky. Yuck.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 2:53 PM on April 22, 2006

While I agree that you should see a lawyer with proper knowledge of tenancy law in your area, I fear you're going to be disappointed.

Do you have a proper tenants' association? If not, start one! It sounds like the manager is not the owner in this situation: bring your concerns to the owners (on behalf of all the tenants). They won't ignore the wishes of the entire complex.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 2:56 PM on April 22, 2006

Response by poster: Busting people for using the laundry room trash recepticle for non-lint purposes, as this joker is doing, seems an egregious abuse of a security system. Is there no legal line where it becomes harassment, misuse or abuse? One would think it's an area would generate law suits. Anyone know a legal case that lays down perameters one way or the other?

Gator, calling the police Q&A line is a good idea. I'm also going to try the local housing authority. And, yeah, I guess I have to track down my lease, which is buried somewhere.

Chud, it seems beyond any diplomatic stage. Besides being antagonistic, the new manager is not good at his job. I've been civil, but the rest of the tenants are close to the spitting stage.

btw: I don't think the management company that hired him knows what has been going on. Tenants are considering writing a letter, but I'm not optimistic it will make a difference. I have begun scanning copies of his rants for evidence. He's so far off the deep end he might be fireable.
posted by Blingo at 2:57 PM on April 22, 2006

Oh, and re: the new rules. Chance are, those would subject to the same notice period as any change to the lease/rental terms. i.e. if you're on month-to-month, he probably can't put those into effect for 30 days. Run that one by your local landlord-tenant board/mediation/whatever-it's-called-there service.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 2:59 PM on April 22, 2006

If I were in your position I'd really try to get a hold of the buildings owner. I really doubt they want to lose tenants in order to assuage the ego of some bitchy, power-tripping manager.
posted by delmoi at 4:13 PM on April 22, 2006

Yeah, the obvious course here is to present your evidence to the manager's boss, whether that's some actual in-the-flesh owner or a superior at the management company. I still think the surveillance is perfectly legit and that any use of the surveillance info by the building owners or authorized agents is de-facto legit, I do agree that certain uses exceed the bounds of reason and that you shouldn't have to accept them.
posted by chudmonkey at 4:21 PM on April 22, 2006

Is it legal or proper for a landlord to use a security system to monitor the habits of law-abiding tenants?

Legal, probably. The landlord has as much right to the common areas as the tenants. Proper, definitely. Common areas affect everyone, and just because you think it's OK to leave your junk mail lying about doesn't mean all the other tenants agree with you.

Isn't this an improper use of a security system?

It seems obvious that you don't think it's proper, but it's not unethical. The only things you've mentioned so far all affect the rest of the residents, so it's not like he's singling anyone out. You might feel peeved that he taped mail to your door - which is a sleazy approach to it - but it gets the point across.

Can you suddenly give 48 hours notice on a new policy?

What does the lease say? Most likely, management of common areas (like mail and laundry rooms) is up to the discretion of the management. As for storage rooms, that's different because if it's in your locker you have a right to expect it to be left alone. However, if it's improperly stored (which I assume means in a common area like a hallway or entryway to the storage room), then you don't have a right to that.

All told, the guy sounds like a jerk. But it doesn't sound like he's doing anything BAD, he's just doing the right stuff in a jerky way. I personally hate trash lying about in the mail area and personal belongings sitting out in the storage area. Mention his attitude to the higher-ups, and in the future be more respectful of your neighbors.
posted by MrZero at 6:10 PM on April 22, 2006

Just sneak up to the camera from a non-visible angle and spray paint or vaseline its damn lens. When it is fixed, do it again. Lather, rinse, repeat. That should make the point.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:29 AM on April 23, 2006

Devil's Advocate - to be brief:

1) The police don't want to be hassled with this.

2) The lawyer will look at the lease, tell you nothing illegal is happening, and take your $200.

3) Your landlord probably paid for those cameras to be installed and is glad the manager is an asshole.

4) Your note to the manager made a solution less likely.

As for what to do, first talk to other tenants and see how they feel about things....this will be a information gathering endeavor, keep your two cents out of it. Apologize to the manager for your own behavior. See how things go for a week or two, all the while continuing to document the situation. If, after you have done what you can do to improve things, the manager continues to be insufferable, and the other tenants agree with you, volunteer to write a professional, succinct letter to the property owner detailing in what ways the manager is acting unprofessional in his duties, asking for the property owner to intervene. Have the other members sign it.
posted by mrmojoflying at 8:38 AM on April 23, 2006

Your landlord probably paid for those cameras to be installed and is glad the manager is an asshole.

My guess is that this is only half-right. No landlord wants unhappy tenants; an unhappy tenant can cost a landlord hundreds of thousands of dollars by 'accidentally' letting the tub overflow for a couple hours, drilling some holes in the wall and injecting several pounds of limburger cheese and a breeding pair of cockroaches into the space, or other, more nefarious methods.

It doesn't sound like anything obviously unlawful is being done; on the other hand, the manager has targeted you for this petty crap. Is there a reason the landlord might want you out of the building? (Are you a twenty-years-legacy rent control tenant who's paying 3% of the going rate for your apartment? Do your neighbors regularly complain about you?) If so, you may have a legal case; harassment in order to get a tenant to leave for these reasons is against the law.

If the manager's just a dick and harassing you for no reason, talk to your landlord about it. Again, no landlord wants unhappy tenants.

Don't start spray-painting camera lenses or otherwise vandalizing the place or committing other crimes. You don't know where all the cameras are.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:36 PM on April 23, 2006

can't see where you live, but in my state, putting cameras up would probably be illegal--unless they were done properly. Here in Illinois, he needs signs up at all times advising people of electronic surveylance.
posted by lester at 2:33 PM on April 24, 2006

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