While it may not sound like something that should be legal in modern-day America, being arrested for failing to pay rent on time is a reality for some Arkansans, thanks to a state law – known as the criminal eviction statute – that has been on the books since the early 1900s. Under this law, renters can face a criminal conviction and up to 90 days in jail for being one day late on their rent.
As a civil legal aid advocate for people living in poverty in Arkansas, I’ve seen firsthand how this policy represents the criminalization of poverty at its worst. For example, one couple was charged under the law when they fell behind on their $585 monthly rent payment and didn’t move out quickly enough. Another woman was sentenced to probation even though she had been in the hospital after suffering a stroke when she was served an eviction notice.
By criminalizing conduct that all other states treat as a private breach of contract, Arkansas puts struggling citizens in jeopardy of getting stuck in financial dire straits. What’s more, saddling renters with criminal records affects their ability to keep their job (or find a new one) and therefore makes them less able to afford rent. It also worsens their chance of securing a new home, which leads to homelessness for a lot of families.
To make matters worse, when low-income individuals are charged for nonpayment of rent, they are often unable to access the legal services that they need to defend themselves. In fact, the vast majority of the approximately 2,000 failure-to-vacate cases filed each year under the criminal eviction statute involves tenants, mostly women and children, who do not have legal representation. But, in a completely lopsided state of affairs, landlords seeking to evict a tenant always have an attorney, because the court appoints a prosecutor at the taxpayers’ expense.
Thankfully, civil legal aid advocates have seen some recent success in the effort to end this terrible policy . Artoria Smith recently found herself in an eviction dispute over back rent. She was late on her rent after the landlord demanded she pay an additional $300 to cover the cost of repairing her floor. The floor was damaged because Ms. Smith had fallen through after it rotted out.
Her story could have ended like most do: with a move, a conviction, and a fine. However, she was fortunate enough to qualify for civil legal aid at the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, one of Arkansas’s two nonprofit legal aid organizations.
Smith’s attorneys argued that the failure-to-vacate statute was unconstitutional, stating that it was a violation of due process and equal protection, unconstitutionally chilled her right to a trial, violated state and federal prohibitions against debtors prisons, and constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The judge agreed, striking down the law in its entirety in Arkansas’s largest county, which has historically prosecuted about 25% of all criminal eviction cases in the state. This case represents a major step forward for the tenants of Arkansas. Cases in two other judicial districts in the state have recently followed suit.
Unfortunately, Arkansas lawmakers have been reluctant to consider any changes to the state’s landlord-tenant laws. In 2015, two bills that would have strengthened renters’ rights were voted down in committee in the Arkansas House. HB1814 would have repealed the criminal eviction statute and HB1486 would have enacted a very basic “implied warranty of habitability,” which would have required landlords to make residential rental properties livable for tenants. Such a warranty certainly would have helped Ms. Smith.
The Arkansas legislature will have a chance to revisit the need for more balanced landlord-tenant laws when it meets again in 2017. Until then, Arkansas legal aid attorneys will be working to achieve that balance one renter at a time.