For example: It is illegal to lockout a Tenant from a property in which they claim they are residing in without given notice. The Police officer knew for a fact that this tenant was illegally residing in an apartment because he knew who the true tenant of the apartment was. The Officer than proceeded to command the Landlord to illegally lock-out the "fake" tenant causing the Landlord to be subjected in an unlawful act. Now, would the Landlord be held liable for simply doing what a police officer told him to do?

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    The Police officer knew a tenant was illegally residing in an apartment? It is then illegal to lock-out "the 'fake' tenant?" And what's a "fake" tenant? Can you rewrite this so it makes sense?
    – feetwet
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 17:50
  • We need a few more details: did the real tenant get a court order to expel a squatter and was the officer enforcing that order? It is not illegal to exclude a trespasser, so explain how you know that the landlord's act is illegal. A simpler version of the question would be "can a person be held liable for an illegal act performed under unlawful police orders (if the person knows that the order is unlawful)?"
    – user6726
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 18:00
  • The police officer knew that this was a Squatter residing in this apt. because it was the apt. of his former deceased partner. The officer saw that this person was staying in the space and asked how long he had been there for? The squatter said he had been living there for 3 years. The officer automatically knew he was lying b.c his partner was living there therefore he told the Landlord to lock the apt up. The Landlord did was he was told by the police officer. I want to know if the Landlord can be held liable for listening to the police even though it was an unlawful act.
    – Sam
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 18:30
  • It was an illegal act because no one knew who this person really was. It all happened in the heat of the moment. The landlord did not give notice to this person to terminate his stay in said apartment. And by law, even if they are a squatter... you must give at least a 10 day notice to terminate in the state of NY.
    – Sam
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 18:32
  • Assuming that the officer's wording was clearly "an order" and not "a suggestion" or less, my intuition is that this might be tolerated as a defense, but I don't find anything directly on point, so this is a good question.
    – user6726
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 19:46

1 Answer 1


The closest precedent that I can find is US v. William Calley 22 U.S.C.M.A. 534. There are significant non-parallelisms: Calley's trial was military, and the offense was murder. The parallelism is that Calley was (supposedly: this allegation was never proven) given an order to do something illegal. The court cites the instructions given by the court-martial judge which stated:

The acts of a subordinate done in compliance with an unlawful order given him by his superior are excused and impose no criminal liability upon him unless the superior's order is one which a man of ordinary sense and understanding would, under the circumstances, know to be unlawful, or if the order in question is actually known to the accused to be unlawful

There is ample evidence that this is a general rule under military law. A fact that makes military law quite different from ordinary law is that soldiers have a vastly higher duty to obey orders. Despite that duty, saying "I was just following orders" does not relieve a soldier of his duty to obey the law. So it is even less likely that a civilian court would accept a "just following orders" defense. In Neu v. McCarthy 309 Mass. 17, another military orders case, the court acknowledges that

obedience to a military order [is] a justification for conduct which would otherwise give rise to civil or criminal liability, unless the order is so palpably unlawful that a reasonable man in the position of the person obeying it would perceive its unlawful quality

and in this instance they say

An order to keep the convoy together even if that involved continuing in the face of a red light, although illegal, cannot, we think, under circumstances not here in dispute, be deemed palpably and obviously illegal to a private soldier in the position of the plaintiff

Applying the "knew or should have known" filter in this case, landlords should probably know that there are laws about eviction (though it legally suffices that they manage to not violate the law), but I would say that this is not a case where a man of a man of ordinary sense and understanding would know that the order was unlawful. It's hard to guess how a court would actually rule.

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