Breaking Bad: Landlord-Tenant Law

Breaking Bad is the award-winning AMC show about a high school chemistry teacher who, after being diagnosed with Stage III lung cancer, decides to provide for his family by cooking meth. Turns out he’s pretty damn good at the cooking part, but the rest of it is where the drama kicks in and why the show is now headed into its fifth season. Obviously, the core of the show involves doing things which are spectacularly illegal, and the show makes no bones about that. But in Episode 4 of the second season, “Down,” there’s a bit of landlord-tenant law that bears examining. Spoilers to follow.

One quick word before we begin: this post involves a look at specific landlord-tenant statutes in New Mexico. If you are a New Mexico resident or landlord looking for legal advice, look somewhere else (for example, the State Bar of New Mexico Attorney Directory). Neither of us are licensed in New Mexico, we are not your attorneys, and this is not legal advice.  We’re just commenting on a work of fiction.

I. The Scene

Walter White has been cooking meth with a former student, Jesse Pinkman. Jesse lives in his late aunt’s house and has a strained relationship with his parents, who have known for years that their son is involved in drugs. After a DEA agent shows up at the Pinkmans’ looking for Jesse, the Pinkmans decide to turn Jesse out of his aunt’s house. They bring him in to their lawyer’s office, and the lawyer tells Jesse, “Jesse Bruce Pinkman, pursuant to section 47-8-13 of the New Mexico Real Property Code, you are hereby given notice to vacate the premises listed as [address].” Jesse is, understandably, rather upset by this and says that his parents can’t kick him out of his own house, and that his aunt gave the house to him. His father reminds him that no, his aunt hadn’t actually given the house to him. The lawyer chimes in with “You are allowed residentiary privileges. Your parents have always been the property owners.” Turns out mom found the meth lab in the basement.

Then the lawyer flashes some pictures of the lab and says that “Manufacture of a Schedule II Controlled Substance is a second-degree felony. Under federal asset seizure, the government can take the entire house.”

The lawyer gives him 72 hours to vacate the premises or the authorities will be contacted.

II. The Landlord-Tenant issues

There’s good news and bad news here. First, it’s clear that someone on the show did consult someone about New Mexico Landlord tenant law, because section 48-7-13 is indeed a properly identified New Mexico statute having to do with service of notice in landlord-tenant relations. First of all, it’s not actually called the “New Mexico Real Property Code”. This is just Chapter 47 of the New Mexico Statutes, and it’s entitled “Property Law.” Further, all this statute really does is discuss the requirements for service of notice. For eviction proceedings and rules, we need to look at 47-8-33.

It’s also unclear whether three days notice is enough. Section 47-8-33 provides that landlords have to give seven days notice if the tenant has breached the rental agreement in such a way that’s causing a health or safety hazard, but only if it’s the second noticed violation in six months. It also gives the tenant an opportunity to correct the breach. Running a meth lab is almost certainly going to count as a material breach of a rental agreement, but if the tenant cleans it up and stops cooking meth there, the landlord may well have to rely on a different statute. Because Jesse has cleaned up the lab, and hasn’t been given prior notice of his parents’ intent to evict, they may not be able to do this.

The statute provides for a three days period when the tenant hasn’t paid rent, but there’s no mention of Jesse being behind on the rent, and no real indication that he owed any in the first place. And if this was really what they were going to hang their hat on, all Jesse needs to do is pay rent. He’s admittedly a bit hard-up for money, but he could probably get his hands on some if he needed to. He’s proven adept at that in the past.

So, legally speaking, it doesn’t seem like this little eviction drama is precisely legal. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work.

Tenants get screwed all the time, even ones that are simply poor but otherwise unobjectionable. If a landlord goes to a judge and asks for an eviction, the judge is going to ask “Why?” If the landlord can come up with a reason, i.e. “They’re cooking meth in the basement,” the judge is going to grant that request, even if it doesn’t strictly comply with the law, unless the tenant appears and makes a valid objection. It isn’t necessarily the judge’s role to make sure that one party or another is getting a fair shake. That’s what lawyers are for. If a party moves for something they totally aren’t allowed to get, and the other party doesn’t object, that motion will be granted. So if Jesse wants to insist on his rights, he’s probably going to need a lawyer to do it.* Not only does he not have one right now, but defending this may well involve making admissions about his narcotics activities that he’d really not have on the record. So even if this little scene doesn’t appear to entirely comply with the New Mexico statutes on the subject, there’s good reason to think that it could go down that way.

* Technically a lawyer isn’t necessary because Jesse could represent himself, but it’s unlikely he would be able to mount an effective defense.

II. Drug Laws

The lawyer also mentions that manufacturing a “Schedule II Controlled Substance” is a “second-degree felony.” He’s right. Section 30-31-20(B)(1) of the New Mexico Code makes “trafficking” controlled substances, which includes manufacturing, a second degree felony. He’s also right about asset forfeiture. You can actually check the listings of property which has been seized here. If the feds decided to take Jesse’s house, they could probably do it.

III. Conclusion.

So points for getting in the right ballpark on New Mexico’s landlord-tenant law. There’s definitely an error in the procedures, but because evicting drug manufacturers is probably a lot easier than evicting law-abiding tenants, we’ll call it harmless. But no points for getting the drug laws right. This is a show about cooking and selling meth, after all, so we expect them to get that much correct.

13 responses to “Breaking Bad: Landlord-Tenant Law

  1. I don’t know how much you’ve watched, but there’s a MUCH more fascinating legal issue in a later episode, episode 6 of season 3, where Jesse and a surprisingly well-educated stoner scrapyard attendant argues that a DEA agent can’t search his camper without a warrant since it could be classified as a home. Jesse then utters one of the best sentences in the entire run of the series:

    “This my own private domicile, and I will not be harassed… bitch!”

    I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on that (relatively lengthy and detailed) legal argument.

    • I haven’t seen that episode, but it should be noted that for Fourth Amendment purposes, mobile homes that aren’t fixed to a particular location are treated somewhere between vehicles and normal dwellings.

      Vehicles are subject to the so-called “vehicle exception,” which means that if you get pulled over, the police can search anywhere in your car they have probable cause to search. They don’t need a warrant.

      But normal dwellings, which would include campers that are fixed to a particular location, are not only protected from search but include the “curtilage” around the dwelling. That would include the space immediately around the house, and probably between the house and any out-buildings, but probably not the entire yard, and certainly not any “open fields” that happen to be part of the property.

      Still, what we’re really looking for here is the “reasonable expectation of privacy,” and it seems plausible that the courts would recognize a higher degree of such in a camper in which one was living than in a regular car, even if the camper was mobile.

      Still, we’ll have to take a closer look. I’ll be sure to revisit this–probably with a post of its own–once I get to that episode.

  2. It must be a bit strange to people more familiar with some version of common European law than U.S law to hear about the different role of the judge and lawyer.

    • Oh, we’re most definitely common law lawyers over here. Civil law is a whole different kettle of fish.

      • I think the reference is the to way judges and lawyers are handled by the legal system. Most of Europe operates on Civil Law not Common Law and the judge takes a much more active investigative role in any given case. Heck, some countries still use a virtually unmodified Justinian Code which is nearly 2000 years old

        Louisiana and Quebec in North America (not counting Mexico which is definitely Civil Law) operate on Civil Law and Common Law depending on the specific issue at law (criminal law in Quebec for example is based on Common Law, but heaven help you if you get a parking ticket).

  3. If I recall, later in the series Jesse purchases this same house at a heavily discounted price because his parents failed to disclose that there had been a meth lab in the basement. Perhaps we should have a discussion of disclosure laws for real property?

  4. I wonder if a term in the rental contract (assuming there was one) allowing the meth lab would be enforceable?

    • Courts will not enforce a contract for an illegal purpose; such an agreement is a legal nullity.

      Hence drug dealers cannot sue their customers who fail to pay; they are obliged to resort to “self-help”.

      • Allowing a laboratory specifically for the production of meth obviously isn’t legal but if it was simply a space for a general laboratory with legal purposes that might be another story.

      • Well, it depends on how the contract defines “meth lab.” Amphetamines, including methamphetamine, have legitimate medical uses (e.g. the treatment of ADHD and narcolepsy), so there’s no inherent reason why a rental contract cannot have a legally enforceable provision allowing the property to be used to produce methamphetamine. In this case, of course, the meth is being produced illegally, so Jesse would be in violation of the rental agreement in any case.

        Zoning would be another issue. It’s a residential property, so it’s doubtful that even a legitimate pharmaceutical lab would fit the zoning requirements.

  5. I know this is late, but I just want to clarify that the most likely type of notice for a meth lab based eviction in New Mexico would be the statutory provision that allows a 3 day notice to vacate for a “substantial violation” of the law. There is no opportunity to cure.

  6. DISCLAIMER: I’m not a lawyer and the following is not legal advice, merely an opinionated commentary and should not be taken as legal advice.

    I don’t know about New Mexico but in NC where I live the landlord wouldn’t be able to just demand they move out; they’d have to get a judge to sign an eviction notice to be served by the county sheriff. Furthermore the landlord can’t just walk in with the movers until after the eviction formally takes effect; under NC law a tenant is protected as if the tenant owned the property therefore a landlord can literally trespass on their own property.
    But that’s NC law and I’m often fascinated by the legal ignorance of people who find themselves in that position so I was interested in New Mexico’s take on the matter.

    Ultimately what I suspect what this boils down to is that Jesse was blackmailed by his parents and I don’t suspect the eviction process and his mother snooping around a house occupied by a tenant, as portrayed, is entirely legal.

  7. I’m way behind, but I’ve been binge watching Breaking Bad. It’s not entirely clear what Jesse’s status is, but when arguing with his parents, he says they promised to let him live there until the house sold. Which would seem to make him an invitee, not a tenant, so permission to enter could be rescinded at will.

    In episode 6 of season 3, Hank was informed by the legal owner of the rv that it was stolen. Therefore Jesse was at best a squatter in an abandoned property, which doesn’t impart 4th amendment rights. You could argue that they bamboozled Hank with their legal inaccuracies, but the salvage yard guy would then definitely be arrested for destroying the vehicle, since no one who instructed him to destroy it had given proof of ownership, plus he has good reason to believe he’s destroying evidence.

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