2017 Regular Session: SB 25, Criminal Evicition, and Arkansas’s Backwards Exceptionalism

The irony in legislation and policy is not lost on us. We realize that is a broad statement- this week are particularly wanting to focus on the irony behind Arkansas’s relationship with criminal eviction laws.

If you are a new reader, you may not be acquainted with the post Brittany wrote last March in regards to Jonesboro, Arkansas’s proposed property maintenance code. This article focused on her hometown’s struggle to adopt (and later repeal) a maintenance code that would establish some form of habitability laws. The discussion that flowed from her article making its rounds was interesting. A lot of opponents to the property code seemed to rely on the repeal of criminal eviction laws within the state for their argument. “We can’t have our tenants arrested during rent disputes” seemed to be unfortunately compelling for many people to believe landlords were being treated unfairly. Conversely, tenants indicated that not being arrested and having a balance of accountability sounded reasonably compatible. We found ourselves agreeing with the tenants.

However, Arkansas still wants to resurrect its former distinction of being the only state to criminalize nonpayment of rent and might do so with Senate Bill 25.

As a bit of background: In 2015, Pulaski County Judge Herbert Wright ruled that landlords could not seek criminal charges against nonpaying tenants. Judge Wright, in his decision, compared the criminal eviction statute to a debtors prison. This comparison was apt, given the case that spurred this ruling. Artoria Smith was served with a notice to vacate her Little Rock home when the landlord alleged she owed back rent. When she did not vacate within 10 days, she was arrested, jailed, and fined. After being convicted under the failure to vacate statute, Ms. Smith filed a Motion to Dismiss that argued the statute was unconstitutional, which Judge Wright agreed to the following year.

“In 2011, the Arkansas legislature created the Commission for the Study of Landlord-Tenant Laws,” Judge Wright said. “In 2012, they issued a report with the unanimous recommendation that the failure to vacate statute should be repealed. This Court agrees with the Commission’s findings, and it has been provided with no compelling argument to find otherwise.”

Which brings us back to 2017 and SB 25.

SB 25 would allow for criminal charges to be brought against tenants who do not vacate a premise within 10 days after receiving an eviction notice (sound familiar?). Some lawmakers have argued that this is good for the tenant, as the threat of jail will make them worry about their credit scores. Rep. Laurie Rushing articulates her fear the impact civil action could have on a tenant’s credit score is why she co-sponsored SB 25. She does not discuss her thoughts on whether a criminal charge and imprisonment could also be a detriment. Other state lawmakers, such as Sen. Terry Rice, took a less refined approach to supporting the bill, saying Arkansas needs the bill because “there is a problem of not being able to get dope heads, and people that have kid that are even questionable, out.”

Our thoughts?

L: There’s a brutal irony in a system that penalizes those unable to pay for their rent by imposing greater fines upon them and then imprisons those people for not paying their fines. While I am by no means opposed to landlords having control over their own property, one cannot help but be struck by two things: that this is a step too far that feels retrograde, if not medieval, and that the Arkansas Legislature would rather fix a problem by imprisoning the poor than by seeking ways to lift them out of poverty.

Given that this legislation looks to be through the house and senate, and dear old Asa will have a chance to put his nice, juicy John Hancock on it, I’m not going to perform the usual analysis. After all, how can one verify anecdotal evidence, provided by the landlord no less?

Instead, find included this small guide to this state’s adverse possession laws and a copy of the Landlord Tenant Handbook. In the face of the state’s prostration before the will of those with money and power, at the very least we can be happy that some laws still protect tenants.

B: Before I even launch into my thoughts on the bill itself, I think it is past time I talk about anecdotal evidence. Anecdotal evidence is evidence relying heavily or entirely on personal testimony. It is usually collected in a casual or informal manner. In logic, there is something called an anecdotal fallacy, which simply put is when a story leads one to overestimate the probability of that type of event. Take for example one of my personal stories:

I was walking home from work one day. While crossing in the crosswalk, a red Jeep Cherokee ran a red light and almost collided with me. Two days later, I was walking to lunch and a red Jeep Cherokee ran a red light a few blocks up and almost hit those pedestrians. My conclusion: All red Jeep Cherokee drivers do not stop at red lights.

That is a fallacy (more specifically, an informal fallacy). I cannot make sweeping statements about thousands of red Jeep Cherokee owners based on two isolated incidents. No matter if I claim they are all terrible drivers or all good drivers, I must have evidence to back up said claims and anecdotes alone cannot cut it.

Now that does not mean anecdotes do not have the potential to be valuable. When anecdotes are corroborated by objective, independent evidence, they can help provide context or perspective. Anecdotes are also important because they highlight an experience that might resonate deeply with a person- in that instance, disregarding an anecdote entirely can appear as if you are disregarding that person. However, no matter how resounding or deep an anecdote may resonate, it can still not be considered independent evidence (and this comes from someone who writes personal editorials).

I feel this is applicable because so many lawmakers are offering up anecdotal evidence to garner support for SB 25. Hearing, “Oh, I lost money to a delinquent tenant” is not evidence that 1.) a majority of tenants are terrible, or 2.) that pressing criminal charges would deter late payments on rent. It is just an unverified story.

Instead, we should approach lease agreements and related disputes in the same way we approach other civil contracts (that is what a lease is, by the way). Arkansas does not criminally prosecute individuals who miss a mortgage or car payment. Civil contract disputes should be determined by civil courts. As it stands, Arkansas already has a civil eviction law in which a civil judge can issue a writ of possession. By adding on a criminal eviction law as well, two separate courts would be required to resolve the matter and the added criminal matter would be footed by Arkansas taxpayers, as prosecuting attorneys would be handling the cases on behalf of landlords.

I find it ridiculous that tossing around logical fallacies and exceptions to legal precedent is compelling. I find it ridiculous that tenants be labeled “dope heads” or “delinquents” that need to be tossed on the street. I also find it absolutely infuriating that a criminal eviction law is on the Governor’s desk, yet we still can’t muster our lazy, apathetic pens to write and present legislation that would provide warrants of habitability for renters.

So now that we have had our chance to dissect and discuss, please feel free to follow up with us for any comments, concerns, or questions! We look forward to taking on a new bill next week; until then, keep up the calls to representatives and government officials and let your voices be heard.

-Brit and Luke


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