On the Governor’s Desk–Feb. 9

SB 25, which preserves the crime of failure to vacate, is now on the governor’s desk. If signed, will it do all the Arkansas Realtors Association hopes it will do? We think not. Even before the existing law was declared unconstitutional, 1/3 of the counties did not permit landlords to file affidavits under this statute. It’s hard to believe they will reverse course. If signed, the law will not legally permit district court judges to order tenants to actually vacate premises. Therefore, any court-ordered evictions under this new law will be illegal. We may see more cases filed to set aside these illegal evictions. One judge has told us that if forced to hear these cases, he will fine tenants $1 per day and refuse to evict them or to allow landlords to change locks.  It may be that landlords don’t find their lives much easier than they were before.

What is needed? As lobbyists and attorneys for the Arkansas Realtors Association testified, if landlords sue under the current civil unlawful detainer statute, there is often a significant delay before cases are heard. Landlords must pay for the services of an attorney. If the tenant is found liable for unlawful detainer, the tenant will probably be saddled with significant court costs and attorney’s fees. On the other hand, the failure to vacate statute can cause a poor, down-on-her-luck tenant who fails to appear at the arraignment or fails to pay the fine to be hit with even larger criminal fines and even possible jail. And contrary to assertions of folks representing the Arkansas Realtors Association, numerous people have been jailed under the failure to vacate statute–records clearly show this. We guess these folks don’t write a letter to the realtors afterwards, and that’s why the realtors don’t know.

What is needed? A civil statute that allows tenants who have no money to pay to be evicted quickly, but allows tenants who have a legitimate complaint against the landlord their day in court. A civil statute that allows both parties to proceed without attorneys if they wish at the preliminary stages. Such a bill is being drafted now. Legislators paid lip service to the idea that a civil statute would be the best solution, but supported the failure to vacate statute because they said it was the only alternative available. What will they say when asked to sponsor or vote on a better civil statute? We’ll see.

In the meantime we see as in today’s  newspaper that the governor hasn’t yet signed the bill because he is reviewing the bill. Thank you, Governor Hutchinson. We hope you will ask why none of our legislators in the majority party are introducing a civil eviction bill. And we’re not even going to respond to Representative Laurie Rushing’s statement that “Arkansas is progressive” for being the only state that criminalizes failure to vacate. Her comment speaks for itself.