The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Arkansas are continuing to challenge a law that makes it a crime to fail to pay rent to a landlord, as opposed to a matter for civil court. Arkansas is the only state in the country with such a law.
“Giving landlords free rein to enlist local law enforcement to force people out of their homes without any protections or due process is the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a police state, not the United States of America,” said Rita Sklar, ACLU of Arkansas executive director.
In a filing in U.S. District Court, the organizations rebutted arguments made by the State of Arkansas, which is trying to get the case dismissed for procedural reasons and because of revisions to the statute passed earlier this year. The ACLU urged the court to invalidate the law and prevent their client, Mitchell Purdom, from being prosecuted.
“The new law is just lipstick on a pig – giving vast powers to landlords and treating tenants like second-class citizens to be bullied and exploited,” Sklar continued. “We urge the legislature to get to work on establishing a civil eviction process that would protect the rights of all parties.”
Under a 2001 law, landlords could use law enforcement as a kind of private security force. Tenants could be charged with failure to pay rent – and threatened by law enforcement with jail time and fines – based on the landlord’s word alone, with no hearing or evidence required. Tenants then face criminal penalties if they cannot pay a fee in the amount of the allegedly unpaid rent, regardless of the reason, including illness, disrepair of the premises, or a mere dispute over the amount owed.
“The new law has the same fundamental problems as the old law - it criminalizes people for being poor,” said Holly Dickson, ACLU of Arkansas legal director. “The State of Arkansas should be working to protect its most vulnerable citizens, not helping private landlords threaten and punish them.”
The Arkansas General Assembly amended the law in 2017, but the new law contains the same inherent defect as the old law: it criminalizes a civil debt without any measure of due process, all to advantage landlords in their efforts to evict tenants.
The ACLU is challenging the law on the basis that it violates constitutional bans on debtors’ prisons; denies tenants due process, including the right to a fair trial; and inflicts cruel and unusual punishment.