Hundreds of tenants who are unable to pay their rent are jailed each year under Arkansas' draconian 'failure-to-vacate' law.
According to "Pay the Rent or Face Arrest: Abusive Impacts of Arkansas' Criminal Evictions Law," a new 44-page report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), hundreds of tenants face criminal charges each year for not paying their rent on time or for failing to vacate their rented homes quickly enough. HRW claims that Arkansas' law "has no parallel in any other US state."
In addition to criminally charging tenants who do not pay their rent or vacate on time, the report alleges people who didn't even violate the 'failure-to-vacate' law were charged due to prosecutors acting on landlords' "specious claims." Some tenants were arrested at home or at work; one woman was lambasted by a district judge in open court who compared her to a "bank robber."
"The Arkansas 'failure-to-vacate' law is unjust and tramples on the fundamental rights of tenants," HRW senior researcher Chris Albin-Lackey wrote in the report. "It also criminalizes severe economic hardships many tenants are already struggling to overcome."
State law stipulates that any tenant who does not pay their rent in full and on time can be evicted. Landlords can demand that they vacate the property within 10 days, and tenants who fail to do so are guilty of a misdemeanor. Tenants who attempt to argue their side of the story in court risk being jailed for violating the law, resulting in a criminal record.
Convictions can also cause unintended negative consequences that go far beyond the issue at hand. For example, a single parent charged with 'failure-to-vacate' who cannot post bond and is jailed risks child neglect charges and placement of their children in the custody of Social Services.
Additionally, tenants charged with 'failure-to-vacate' can be fined $25 per day for each day between the expiration date on the 10 day notice and the date of trial. Tenants who retain possession of the rental property while awaiting trial could also face an additional $25/day fine. These costs can be devastating for tenants who are already facing dire financial straits, as evidenced by their initial failure to pay their rent in full and on time.
State law strongly discourages accused tenants from pleading not guilty. Those who do must pay the court a deposit equalling the total amount of rent they allegedly owe. This deposit is forfeited if the defendant is found guilty. Those who cannot afford such a deposit but plead not guilty anyway face jail terms of up to 90 days and more expensive fines. Those who plead guilty face none of these potential consequences.
"The failure to vacate law effectively coerces tenants into either quietly moving or pleading guilty instead of exercising their right to defend against a criminal charge and having their day in court," Albin-Lackey wrote. "Disturbingly, it does so by turning prosecutors into landlords' personal attorneys-- at taxpayer expense."
'Failure-to-vacate' charges were brought against more than 1,200 Arkansas tenants in 2012 alone. The HRW report contains interviews with some of them. One woman had an arrest warrant issued against her just three days after she was ordered to move out. Another was reportedly charged based on a false claim by a landlord from whom she'd actually purchased her home and paid it off in full.
The current situation, in which Arkansas is the only state in the nation to criminalize failure to pay rent, could soon be changing. The Non-Legislative Commission on the Study of Landlord-Tenant Laws, established in 2011, has just released a report listing 15 recommended changes to landlord-tenant laws in the state.
"The laws in Arkansas are unbalanced," said Stephen Giles, an attorney appointed by Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, to chair the commission. "I would say mostly in favor of landlords and less promoting of tenants," Giles told KTHV.
Giles said one of the proposed amendments to eviction law would "repeal the criminal eviction statute that exists in Arkansas."
"Legally right now tenants can be found guilty of a crime for not paying their rent and for not getting out when the landlord tells them to," Giles told KTHV. "We just think that's not fair at all and that this should be a civil process."