Senator Roger Webb Charge Tenants with Theft

Wants to Charge Tenants with Theft if Left - if left owing money to landlord

HELENA — Several people spoke in opposition Tuesday to a pair of bills they say create a debtor’s prison for tenants who walk away from rentals and add a special level of protection for landlords without looking out for renters.

Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, is carrying the legislation to allow tenants who abandon rentals without giving notice to be charged with theft. A second bill would let landlords ask courts to collect money from tenants who have judgments against them until the amount owed is paid in full.

“You can’t go to jail for debts on unpaid bills, but this would change that,” said Amy Hall, a housing specialist for Montana Legal Services Association. “We abolished incarceration of people who failed to pay their debts centuries ago. Do we want to return to the days of debtor’s prison?”

Webb, who disclosed he is a landlord, said he is carrying Senate Bills 239 and 255 because landlords are harmed by tenants who walk away and owe money. He and his wife, Sen. Peggy Webb, R-Billings, have several bills this session addressing landlord-tenant issues.

“Normally when they leave in the dead of night normally the conditions they leave (rentals) in aren’t very satisfactory,” Webb said. “I’m trying to address an issue that for some reason seems to be socially acceptable,” Webb said.

He told the Senate Judiciary Committee, which heard the bill and took no action Tuesday, that tenants walking away from rentals is the same as shoplifting.

“If an individual pulls up to a service station, fills their vehicle with gas and drives off, that’s theft. An individual walks out of a Walmart with a basket of whatever and doesn’t pay for it, that’s theft. That is the absolute same pretense.”