Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley, whose district covers Pulaski and Perry Counties, has given notice that his office will not enforce the state criminal eviction statute.
The ACLU this week announced it would challenge in federal court the 2017 legislature’s attempt to rewrite the state’s one-of-a-kind criminal eviction statute on account of adverse court rulings against the old statute. When law enforcement is used to charge people for failure to pay rent, tenants are deprived of due process and can be essentially jailed for a debt. Pulaski County was among the places where lower court judges had found the statute unconstitutional, though the Arkansas Supreme Court has not reviewed the issue.
Though the federal court suit has just begun, Jegley has made the decision that his office will not enforce the new law, which took effect Aug. 1. It’s his opinion it remains constitutionally suspect. That leaves landlords to use a civil eviction process used elsewhere in the U.S. and already used by many landlords.
Jegley’s statement said it’s his office’s opinion that failure to pay rent is a breach of a civil contract and “full legal redress” is available in civil court. He cited the Arkansas Constitution prohibition against imprisonment for debt. He said the new state law criminalizes failure to pay even without proof of fraud.
“A failure to pay, while certainly problematic to landlords, does not constitute fraud,” he said.
Among other criticisms, Jegley noted that the new state law allows a separate criminal charge for each day rent isn’t paid, rather than a single charge of non-payment. No notice is provided for tenants, including the potential for additional charges based on judicial system delays.
Sen. Blake Johnson, a Republican from a district where questions had been raised about the old law, led the passage of the new law. It passed easily, with only token opposition, primarily from a small number of Democrats. The legislature is hostile to tenants in a state often depicted as having the worst landlord-tenant laws in the country. An effort to impose some habitability standards in Arkansas also failed in 2017.
Here’s Jegley’s full statement: