At common law the landlord had a right to distress for rent. If rent was unpaid the landlord could seize any property found in the leased premises and hold in ransom for rent or sell it to cover unpaid rent. Property the tenant uses in a trade or business was exempt.
If the landlord was in error as to unpaid rent the tenant could bring an action in replevin or for conversion. Some statutes allow punitive damages for a landlord’s wrongful distraint of property.
In many jurisdictions distress for rent has been modified or abolished by statute or by case law. The modifications vary widely. Some states limit the type of tenancy to commercial tenancy and exempt residential tenancies. The Uniform Residential Landlord-Tenant Act abolishes distress for rent.
Some distress for rent statutes modify the procedure to enforce the remedy so as to afford more safeguards to tenants. In some states there must be a hearing and a warrant issued for distress for rent. However, in some jurisdictions the landlord may seize property before rent is late if the tenant is attempting to remove property from the premises.
The constitutionality of distress for rent has been challenged, sometimes successfully.
This article is a short summary of the common law right of distress for rent. Consult an attorney in your jurisdiction about your rights.
Further reading -
American Law of Landlord and Tenant, Robert Schoshinski, §6.21.