One evening this past August, Angela and Steve received a knock on the door. The couple opened it to see two police officers standing outside.
“One of them said, ‘We have a warrant for y’all’s arrest. … The next thing I remember is my husband dragging me from the kitchen. I had fainted,” Angela recalled, according to Human Rights Watch.
Their crime? The couple was unable to afford their $585 rent payment that month.
Two weeks after their rent was due, Steve approached their landlord with half of the money for the rent, but she wouldn’t take it.
“I’ve never been more than one month late. Then they stick this notice on the door and said get out in 10 days,” Steve told Human Rights Watch.
After failed negotiations with the landlord and the near impossibility of finding another place in 10 days, the couple ended up with an arrest warrant and had to appear in court. When the court clerk asked Angela for a mug shot, she broke down and screamed: “Steve, are we going to jail? I don’t want to go to jail!”
Angela and Steve were lucky the judge was a bit understanding: he dismissed all charges and granted them another week to move out. But not everyone is so lucky when it comes to the state of Arkansas’ harsh tenant laws.
Arkansas is the only U.S. state where tenants can wind up with a criminal record if they can’t afford to pay their rent on time. The state’s “failure to vacate” laws allow landlords, without independent investigation, to charge tenants with a misdemeanor offense and have them arrested if they fail to move out after receiving a 10-day eviction notice. Landlords can give tenants the notice after they are only one day late with their payment.
The reason Arkansas has such harsh tenant laws dates back to 2007, when the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act passed, stripping landlords of many responsibilities while burdening tenants. Currently, while tenants are supposed to properly dispose of waste, landlords have no obligation to provide them with garbage receptacles. Landlords are also not required to provide tenants with safe or sanitary property; they are, however, allowed to enter their tenants’ property whenever they deem fit.
Human Rights Watch documented these abuses in its recent report titled, “Pay the Rent or Face Arrest: Abusive Impacts of Arkansas’s Draconian Evictions Law.”
Human Rights Watch spoke with Cashwana Chitman, who didn’t have running water in her rented house for the first month. She said, “I had to fill water jugs to wash clothes and flush the toilet … I had to take my kids to other people’s houses to shower — and they were at school at the time.”
In the summertime, Chitman’s air conditioning broke down, and despite repeated promises to fix it, the landlord never did. In protest, Chitman decided to withhold her rent and ended up with a 10-day eviction notice in her mailbox shortly after. She was unable to find a place to stay in that time period, and so police showed up to her workplace with a warrant for her arrest.
Chitman moved in with a friend the night before her court date. She said she felt “completely displaced.” Ready to tell her story to the court, Chitman was furious when the trial lasted only three minutes, as the judge quickly dismissed all charges because she had moved out.
Human Rights Watch found that many of the accused tenants don’t comprehend the laws, face a speedy trial without legal representation and then walk out with criminal records. Others purposely wait for police to come to their doors with an arrest warrant so they can have their day in court, only to later realize that circumstance does not matter — if they didn’t pay their rent on time and didn’t leave within 10 days of receiving their notice, they committed a crime.
In addition, because this law goes by strictly what landlords say, Human Rights Watch found one landlord gave a renter a three-day eviction notice instead of 10. Another filed charges against a woman the landlord had sold the house to.
And because the law is poorly written, judges improvise the punishment. Some try to avoid handing out charges and give tenants an extra week to move out. But others regularly hand out fines of $400 or detain tenants before trial. Human Rights Watch witnessed one district judge yell at an accused renter and compare her to a bank robber.
There is no statewide data on how many people have been affected by the Arkansas law, but the report does state that about a third of all the state’s residents (about 900,000 people) are renters, and landlord representatives say the law is used in the majority of eviction cases each year. Human Rights Watch found that at least 1,200 people were charged under the law in 2012, and more than 100 were convicted of a crime.
Human Rights Watch is advocating for reforming Arkansas’s civil evictions process. Currently, landlords claim they are using the criminal evictions statute because the civil process is slow and expensive. A solution was put on the table in 2011, when the Arkansas state legislature set up the Non-Legislative Commission on the Study of Landlord-Tenant Laws. The commission recommended eliminating the criminal evictions law and streamlining Arkansas’s civil evictions law. But Human Rights Watch argues that while this process of reformation is necessary, the criminal evictions law needs to be taken off the books.
Human Rights Watch concluded its report:
As long as Arkansas’ draconian criminal evictions law is on the books and as long as at least some county prosecutors are willing to enforce it, some of the state’s 900,000 tenants will continue to face abuse of their basic rights and face arrest and conviction over matters that should not be handled through the criminal law at all. Unscrupulous landlords will be able to misuse the criminal justice system as a tool of harassment and abuse. What’s more, Arkansas renters who fall into economic distress will risk having their problems compounded by a law that imposes financial penalties in excess of the rent they could not afford to pay in the first place.
For more information, read the full report here.
Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @alyssa_fig.