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In district court, his wife clutched a bag of anti-rejection meds, just in case their locks were changed while they were away. The clerk asked her to face him for a mug shot, and she began weeping. "Are we going to jail? I don't want to go to jail!" she said.
The judge asked Steve how long they had been in the apartment and allowed him to explain their situation. According to Steve, "She said, 'OK, well, I'm going to give you another week. And if you're not out in a week, you'll have to come back to court, and we'll have to charge you.' " The judge didn't fine them or require them to pay the missed rent. Her action was "a mercy the law does not actually allow judges to extend to the accused," the HRW report notes.
"We had to rush and get what we can get. What's bad about it, when you try to get another apartment, the application's going to tell that you were evicted," Steve said. Their new apartment had a carbon monoxide leak due to improper stove fittings, no heat and only two outlets, problems that Steve has had to call code about, since his landlord has little interest in remedying them.
Even in straightforward circumstances, failure-to-vacate is preferred by landlords because it is cheaper and easier than civil eviction. "The landlords' position is, we want a simple, effective way to evict an intentionally nonpaying tenant," said commission member Warren. "When a tenant intentionally occupies my property without paying for its use, they're stealing from me. I've never evicted grandma. I've evicted people who blow their money on iPhones or dressing up an old car or buying expensive furniture from rent-a-center."
Arkansas has two civil eviction statutes on the book, but one of them is contradictory and unusable. Foster outlines the other, called unlawful detainer: "A landlord would have to file a complaint with the circuit court. The form is complex, most likely requiring a lawyer, and you have to pay court fees of $165. By using the criminal statute, the landlord becomes a victim of a crime and doesn't have to pay court fees."
According to Warren, civil evictions can cost landlords up to $2,000, in addition to any uncollected rent. He's heard horror stories from landlords unable to force tenants to leave. "You get down in the Delta and the poor sections of Arkansas, and you have no way to get any form of eviction. Neither the 10-day failure-to-vacate works, nor does the civil, because attorneys won't take the cases. They're unpopular. You're throwing somebody out," he said.
The commission recommends several statute changes that should make the civil process more attractive to landlords. Among them: having standard forms available so that neither landlords nor tenants need to hire attorneys; giving district courts, with cheaper filing fees and faster dockets, the power to hear civil evictions, and establishing a week or less time frame between the tenant's written response and a possession hearing. Repealing the criminal failure-to-vacate is only recommended when a better civil eviction procedure is in place.
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