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(Little Rock) – Hundreds of Arkansas tenants face criminal charges every year because they don’t pay their rent on time and then fail to vacate their homes quickly enough. The Arkansas state legislature should repeal the abusive law that allows for these prosecutions, which has no parallel in any other US state.

The 44-page report, “Pay the Rent or Face Arrest: Abusive Impacts of Arkansas’s Criminal Evictions Law,” tells the stories of Arkansas tenants who were dragged into criminal court for transgressions that would not be a crime in any other US state. Other tenants who did not violate the law have faced charges because prosecutors acted on specious claims by landlords. Several of the tenants interviewed for this report were confronted at home or at work by police officers who had warrants for their arrest. One woman was berated in open court by a district judge, who compared her to a bank robber.

“The Arkansas ‘failure-to-vacate’ law is unjust and tramples on the fundamental rights of tenants,” said Chris Albin-Lackey, business and human rights senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It also criminalizes severe economic hardships many tenants are already struggling to overcome.”

Under Arkansas’s failure-to-vacate law, a landlord can demand that a tenant move out of a property within 10 days if the tenant does not pay the rent in full and on time. Any tenant who fails to do so is guilty of a misdemeanor. There is no way for tenants to present their side of the story in court without risking a criminal conviction.

Many tenants end up in court precisely because they have struggled to meet their rent obligations and can ill-afford the hefty fines that can go along with a guilty verdict. But the law mandates the court to convict the tenant no matter why the person failed pay the rent in full or on time or was unable to move out before their 10-day deadline expired. The rights and interests of the tenants are not to form any part of the court's deliberations.

The failure-to-vacate law was used to bring charges against more than 1,200 Arkansas tenants in 2012 alone. This figure greatly understates the total number of people impacted by the law. The vast majority of tenants scramble to move out when faced with a 10-day notice to vacate rather than face trial – and with good reason.

Making matters considerably worse, the law strongly discourages accused tenants from pleading not guilty. Those who do are required to deposit the total amount of rent they allegedly owe with the court, which they forfeit if they are found guilty. Tenants who are unable to deposit the rent amount but plead not guilty anyway face substantially harsher fines and up to 90 days in jail. Tenants who plead guilty face none of this.

“The failure-to-vacate law effectively coerces tenants into either quietly moving out or pleading guilty instead of exercising their right to defend against a criminal charge and having their day in court,” Albin-Lackey said. “Disturbingly, it does so by turning prosecutors into landlords’ personal attorneys – at taxpayer expense.”

The criminal evictions process is also wide open to abuse by unscrupulous landlords because there is little effort to assess the veracity of landlords’ claims. Many prosecutors file criminal charges against tenants purely on the basis of landlords’ assertions.

Human Rights Watch interviewed one tenant whose landlord got an arrest warrant issued against her just three days after ordering her to move out. Another woman was repeatedly charged on the basis of false claims made by a man from whom she had purchased her home – and paid it off in full.

The criminal evictions law is poorly written and its implementation is wildly inconsistent, Human Rights Watch found. There may be no two district courts in Arkansas that apply it exactly the same way.

There are nascent efforts to repeal this law. In January 2013, a non-legislative commission on landlord-tenant law established by the state legislature called on the state government to repeal the criminal evictions statute and replace it with a more efficient civil evictions process. It also called for other key reforms.

“The road map to reform this unjustlaw is already there,” Albin-Lackey said. “The state legislature already has good recommendations in front of it and it should act on them immediately.”

One Family’s Story
Steve and his wife, Angela, [surnames withheld at their request] are active in their church and had never been in trouble with the law before August 2012. One evening that month, the couple were preparing for Bible study class when they heard a knock at the door. Two police officers were standing outside.

“One of them said, ‘We have a warrant for y’all’s arrest,’” Angela recalled. “The next thing I remember is my husband dragging me from the kitchen. I had fainted.” The couple had not been able to make their US$585 rent payment that month.

When Human Rights Watch interviewed the couple outside of the District Court in Little Rock several days later, Angela was clutching a gallon-sized plastic bag full of pills. She had undergone heart transplant surgery and her body was rejecting the new organ. Afraid that their landlord would change the locks while they were away in court, she brought her entire supply of anti-rejection medicine along with her just in case.

Steve had been living in his apartment for eight-and-a-half years; Angela had moved in with him when they married in 2010.

“The place is OK, and a lot of folks there said they’d be sorry to see us go,” Steve said. “We didn’t have any problems in there, and I’ve never been more than one month late. Then they stick this notice on the door and said get out in 10 days.”

Two weeks after the rent was due, Steve approached their landlord.

“I told her I have half of the money,” he explained, “but she didn’t accept it. I tried to borrow from everyone. She said, ‘If I do it for you I’ll have to do it for everyone else.’ I said, “But Miss, I’ve been here eight-and-a-half years!”

Steve and Angela continued trying to negotiate with their landlord after she posted the 10-day notice to vacate. They thought they might somehow persuade her to give them more time. They had also set about looking for a new apartment, but had not found anything by the time the 10-day notice expired.

“We were trying to find a place,” Steve said.

Steve and Angela sat in court with their arms around each other for almost two hours, watching a procession of criminal defendants accused of theft, drug offenses, and violent crimes called up before the judge. When their case was finally called, the court clerk asked Angela to face him so he could take her mug shot. She broke down in tears, grabbed her husband’s arm and screamed, “Steve, are we going to jail? I don’t want to go to jail!” The room went silent as the judge tried to calm her down, telling the couple she would dismiss the charges against them if they moved out within a week—a mercy the law does not actually allow judges to extend to the accused.

Standing outside the courthouse afterwards, Steve and Angela were visibly shaken.

“I felt like a criminal,” Angela said. “I just wanted to be here with my husband. But at the same time, I didn’t want to be here at all, you know?”

Asked what they would do next, Steve shook his head. “I don’t know. We’re just praying. That’s about it.”

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