We wrote yesterday about a Pulaski Circuit Court ruling that held the Arkansas criminal eviction statute unconstitutional. A likely appeal lies ahead.
Groups that worked on the case are touting the victory today as a step toward a needed improvement of Arkansas’s landlord-tenant laws, some of the most pro-landlord in the country — in the realm of human rights abuses in the words of one investigative report. Arkansas was the last state with a criminal eviction statute, a punishment that Judge Herbert Wright said was akin to an unconstitutional debtors prison.
The ACLU and legal services agencies participated in the case, which, if upheld, relieves prosecutors of an immense, essentially civil enforcement, duty that could be devoted to real crime.
A full news release toots the horn of those working to “decriminalize poverty” in Arkansas:
ARK., Jan. 21, 2015 – Arkansas v. Smith became a landmark case yesterday when Judge Herbert Wright, 4th Division Circuit Court Judge in Pulaski County, found that the state’s unique failure to vacate statute violated the state and federal constitution.
Judge Wright’s ruling will halt current prosecutions in Pulaski County district courts, where Arkansas tenants can become convicted criminals for failing to pay rent on time. Arkansas is also the only state where landlords are not required to maintain safe and livable residences for tenants to live in. These two issues unique to Arkansas have received national attention and have been covered by Human Rights Watch in its February 2013 report “Pay the Rent or Face Arrest: Abusive Impacts of Arkansas’s Criminal Evictions Law.”
“Arkansas has been on the wrong side of history when it comes to treating citizens of the state equally,” said Stacy Fletcher, a staff attorney with the Center for Arkansas Legal Services. “The failure to vacate statute was solely designed to intimidate renters into giving up their rights to a trial.”
Fletcher added that Judge Wright’s ruling in Pulaski County could be the first step in equalizing the playing field between landlords and tenants.
Jason Auer, a staff attorney with Legal Aid of Arkansas, agreed, as both legal aid programs have represented low-income tenants faced with criminal evictions. In Artoria Smith’s case, she was served with a notice to vacate her home in Little Rock when the landlord alleged that she owed more than $22,300 in back rent. When Smith remained in the home, her landlord filed an affidavit for her arrest for not paying her rent. Due to Arkansas’ failure to vacate statute, landlords use state prosecutors to enforce an eviction through the threat of fines or jail.
Judge Wright’s decision in Arkansas v. Smith is a good day for Arkansas tenants.
“Yesterday’s decision was a key step towards decriminalizing poverty in Arkansas,” Auer said. “I am proud that
the legal aid community and our national partners could come together to facilitate this leap.”
National partners included the ACLU, whose attorneys assisted with legal research and briefing with the key issues in the case that led to Judge Wright agreeing about the unconstitutionality of the law.
“In 2011, the Arkansas legislature created the Commission for the Study of Landlord-Tenant Laws,” Judge Wright said. “In 2012, they issued a report with the unanimous recommendation that the failure to vacate statute should be repealed. This Court agrees with the Commission’s findings, and it has been provided with no compelling argument to find otherwise.”
Legal Aid of Arkansas and the Center for Arkansas Legal Services will continue offering help to low-income Arkansas tenants experiencing issues with their landlords. Tenants can visit the Contact Form on the Arkansas legal aid website at www.arlegalservices.org/contactusevictions. They can also apply for free legal help by calling 800-9 LAW AID (800-952-9243) Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Tenants who call for help should specifically mention that they are calling about an eviction issue or housing issue. In certain counties, tenants can also apply online: www.arlegalservices.org/applyonline.
Legal Aid of Arkansas and the Center for Arkansas Legal Services are non-profit organizations that provide free legal services to low-income Arkansans with civil legal problems, including foreclosure, consumer issues, housing, help for victims of domestic abuse, and representation in public benefits. With 17 offices staffed by more than 50 attorneys throughout the state, plus a volunteer pool of more than 1,400 attorneys, legal aid services benefited more than 30,000 low-income people and the elderly with their critical legal needs annually. However,
more than 722,000 people in Arkansas live at or below 125 percent of the poverty line, and thousands of those Arkansans in need are turned away due to lack of resources. Learn more at www.arlegalservices.org.