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.
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.