McGehee, Ark. – Representing a renter facing eviction and potential criminal penalties after losing their job due to COVID-19, the ACLU of Arkansas, the Bowen Legal Clinic, the Center for Arkansas Legal Services and Legal Aid of Arkansas filed suit in federal court today challenging the constitutionality of the state’s criminal eviction statute.

The lawsuit asserts that Arkansas’ criminal eviction law denies people their right to due process and violates both the state and federal constitutions. Arkansas is the only state in the country where tenants can face criminal conviction for failing to pay their rent on time. In every other state, evictions are treated as a civil matter. Arkansas is also one of only a handful of states that has not taken any action to prevent evictions amid COVID-19.

“Arkansas is the only state where being late on the rent can result in a criminal prosecution – purely on the basis of a landlord’s say-so,” said Holly Dickson, ACLU of Arkansas interim executive director and legal director. “This law allows landlords to use the criminal process to get the upper hand in a matter for civil court, and it disproportionately impacts Black and brown communities who already suffer from over-policing and systemic discrimination in housing, health care, and employment. Poverty is not a crime and it is long past time for this cruel and unconstitutional law to be struck down.”  

Under Arkansas law, the landlord of a tenant who is one day late on rent may order the tenant to vacate the premises within 10 days. If the tenant fails to do so, they are guilty of a separate misdemeanor offense for each day they fail to vacate the premises following the expiration of the 10-day notice and must pay a fine of up to $25 per day or offense. In 2012, Arkansas’ Non-Legislative Commission on the Study of Landlord-Tenant Laws recommended full repeal of the criminal eviction statute. 

“We’re suing to make sure no tenant is ever again prosecuted for not being able to afford the rent,” said Kendall Lewellen of the Center for Arkansas Legal Services. “With rents continuing to rise and thousands of Arkansans experiencing job losses and furloughs due to COVID-19, we’ve seen first-hand how this law is forcing tenants to live in fear that a late rent payment could land them in criminal court."

Arkansas is also the only state in the nation that adopted only the recommended protections for landlords and none of the recommendations for tenants from the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, a sample law governing residential landlord and tenant interactions. 

Arkansas state courts have repeatedly rejected the statute as unconstitutional, and Pulaski County has been barred from hearing any criminal eviction cases since a Pulaski County Circuit Court decision invalidating the law in 2015.

Studies show that evictions have a disproportionate impact on people of color. The ACLU’s Data Analytics team analyzed national eviction data from 2012 to 2016, and found that on average, Black renters had evictions filed against them by landlords at nearly twice the rate of white renters. Women of color, and particularly Black women, bear a disproportionate burden of eviction. 

“Arkansas’ draconian criminal eviction law tilts the scales of justice against tenants – denying them the ability to prove their innocence or challenge a landlords’ attempt to wrongfully evict them,” said Amy Pritchard, professor at the University of Arkansas’ Bowen Legal Clinic. “We’re hopeful the Court will see this law for what it is: a cruel and unconstitutional attempt to criminalize the poor and allow landlords to enlist the criminal legal system for their own personal benefit.”