On Wednesday, the House Committee, Judiciary 2, amended, passed, and referred to the Rules Committee, House Bill 966 “Expedited Removal of Unauthorized Persons,” following a lively discussion on the issue. 

HB 966 was filed on May 1 with a companion bill, SB 886, in the Senate. Around the same time, a similar bill was filed — HB 984, “Removal of Squatters from Private Property” — that, despite similarities, includes subtle, yet critical differences in the two pieces of legislation.

Rep. Carson Smith, R-Onslow, introduced an amendment to HB 966 that would leverage the judicial process to remove unauthorized individuals from private property. This process is patterned after the expedited removal from vacation rentals. 

“What this does is it does bring that judicial process into it,” said Smith. “We’re talking hours; we’re not talking weeks or even months. Most sheriffs are going to hop right on it. They are not going to wait for 24 hrs. They are going to serve it immediately. The unauthorized person is going to have to go for the magistrate, and as soon as they go there, if they can’t prove it’s theirs, then the sheriff is getting ordered to move them out. So, I think this is patterned after a system that we already have in place. If there are any constitutional questions, I think they have probably been vetted, and I think this has probably been in place for 20 years or so.”

Several representatives voiced concerns that all leases need to be in writing and that oral leases should not be valid, as they do not provide the documentation or proof necessary for such a removal order.

“I’m in favor of the amendment, but I do think they need to be in writing,” said Rep. Brian Biggs, R-Randolph, one of the primary sponsors. “One thing we could do is, a lot of leases to go month to month after the initial lease is in writing. I know if we go to court and I stand before a magistrate and I have went to evict a few people, I better have that lease in writing. I better have a piece of paper with me because, if not, I’m in trouble. So, we definitely want the initial lease to be in writing, just like any contract for sale. After that, a lot of leases do go month to month, but we need that initial release in writing.”

While Rep. Laura Budd, D-Mecklenburg, did not explicitly oppose the removal of oral leases, she did have other concerns with changing the language. 

“Notwithstanding the number of problems that ensue with an oral lease, the concern I’ve got with changing any of that language today is that we would be essentially rewriting a large subsection of landlord-tenant law across North Carolina without giving due thought to how it would work and the potential adverse effects that could come from it,” said Budd. “So, I’d recommend to leave as is and leave oral leases in place, but I do think it’s something we need to look at and consider moving forward because they do pose problems, not just for landlords, but also for tenants themselves.” 

Smith’s amendment passed unanimously. 

“We thank the sponsors of the bill along with Sheriffs’ Association with working with us on some suggested changes,” said Fred Baggett, legislative counsel for the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, during the public comment period.  “Many more changes have been brought to bear in today’s meeting and other suggestions. So, I’m forced to say that our position on this is wait and see at this point. I must say that Representative Smith’s, last amendment is appealing to law enforcement.”

During public comment, Marie Evitt, director of government relations for the North Carolina Sheriffs ‘Association, thanked the sponsors of the bill for involving the Sheriffs’ Association in discussions about the proposed legislation and addressing the association’s concerns.

The concerns of realtors with the legislation remained, however, pointing out their view that treating the issue of unauthorized persons within a landlord/tenant framework has the effect of offering special affordances to persons committing the criminal act of trespassing.

“We did support this bill before that last amendment,” asserted Katie Thomas of North Carolina Realtors. “This is not about landlord-tenant law. This is about property owners and trespassers and, in the law, we treat trespassers one way, and you’re trying to treat them as the legitimate person in the property.”

Thomas said realtors understand concerns from law enforcement about having a properly legal order that they may execute, but warned against conflating trespassers with legal tenants, and the sacrifice of property owners that would come as a result.

“You’re taking a property owner — who never put them in the place of being a landlord, never took a bet on that tenant on that person being there — you’re making them pay the price for [the trespasser’s] bad action, and then there was no recourse for that property owner. No recourse for the person who’s been kicked out? Well, they’re a criminal, and if they aren’t a criminal and you can prove it, that property owner is subjected to treble damages, the highest that we give. We’ve tried to protect an unwitting trespasser in this process. Unfortunately, right now, the way it stands, the criminals still get the benefit of the law, and the property owners do not.” 

The bill, passed unanimously in committee as amended, was referred to the House Rules Committee.