Today the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on amended Senate Bill 25, which would repeal part of the failure to vacate statute but leave part of it in place. Under the amended bill, once the due date for even one rent payment passes without payment of rent, the tenant loses the right to remain on the premises. If a landlord then tells the tenant in writing to leave within 10 days, a tenant who does not leave is guilty of a misdemeanor. If the tenant is convicted after a hearing in district court, the tenant can be fined between $1 and $25 a day for each day the tenant remains on the premises.
Neither this bill nor the original statute sought to be amended allow judges to evict tenants, but many criminal judges do order tenants to leave, even though the judges don’t have the power to do this.
Under the current law and under this amendment if passed, landlords still will be able to file a criminal complaint against a tenant and get free, taxpayer-subsidized legal assistance from the prosecutor or city attorney who prosecutes the tenant.
Tenants have no right to a jury trial under this statute.
In all other states, a landlord must file a civil (not a criminal) complaint to evict a tenant. Many states have “housing courts” where streamlined procedures are followed. In some states, forms for landlords and tenants to use are available on the Internet and neither side needs an attorney. This is what the Landlord-Tenant Study Commission recommended for Arkansas in 2012. Instead of working on such a procedure, landlords did nothing.
In 2015, three courts declared the failure to vacate statute unconstitutional. So now, instead of working on a streamlined civil procedure, the landlords are asking for a watered-down criminal statute, thinking that it will pass a constitutionality test. Meanwhile, landlords still get taxpayer-subsidized legal assistance, the “offense” is still a crime, and criminal judges still have no power to evict a tenant.
Several folks in the hearing room today said that they know a civil procedure is what is needed but “in the meantime” the landlords need a way to get tenants out. Arkansas already has an unlawful detainer statute, which is a fair civil procedure. Landlords don’t like to use it because the pleadings are so technical that an attorney is necessary, some landlords feel it is slower, and it costs $165 to file. A few courts are also using a newer, faster civil eviction statute which was enacted in 2007. These courts don’t have the jurisdiction to use this procedure because the Arkansas Supreme Court has never okayed it, but they use it anyway.
Ultimately, two Senators voted to abstain, one voted against and the others voted for. There weren’t enough votes to pass. Not all Senators were present. Senate procedures allow the sponsor to keep asking for a new vote. That should happen tomorrow, when more Senators will be present. It’s looking like the bill will come out of committee with a “do pass” recommendation.
Our concern? This expressed support for a better civil procedure is just lip service. Landlords have had four years to come up with a streamlined eviction procedure. This SB 25 isn’t a stop gap. It’s a way to continue to block tenants’ rights and keep the playing field slanted towards landlords. Any time drafters representing only landlord groups, including the Arkansas Realtors Association, draft statutes they are unfairly biased against tenants. The bills and laws that result have caused Arkansas to have the most unfair landlord-tenant laws in the United States. SB 25 does nothing to change that statement.
Please urge Senate Judiciary Committee members and your Senator to vote NO on SB 25, as amended.
If you have, thank you! And a big thanks to the Citizens First Congress representatives who were at the hearing, as well as to the people who testified against SB 25 and most of all to the Senator who voted against it.