Matt Williams for ProPublica
This story is published in partnership with the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network.
It was bad enough when Jazmon Allen lost her waitressing job in March at a Hot Springs, Arkansas, barbecue restaurant during statewide closures meant to curb the pandemic.
Then after she fell behind on her rent came the shock that only happens to tenants in Arkansas: In May, her landlord filed a criminal complaint for failing to pay and failing to vacate the property.
When Allen, 29, didn’t appear in court as required on the morning of July 9, a warrant was issued for her. Four days later, an officer handcuffed her and booked her into a cell at the local sheriff’s office, where she remained for six hours until her mother posted bail.
Arkansas is the only state in the country that allows landlords to file criminal — rather than civil — charges against tenants after they fall behind on rent. Based on a law dating back to 1901, if tenants’ rent is even a day overdue, they forfeit their right to be in the property. Then, if they don’t leave their homes within 10 days of getting a notice from their landlords, they can be charged with a misdemeanor.
“I hate that law. It’s unconstitutional,” said Josh Drake, a deputy prosecutor in the county where Allen was charged. The statute, he thinks, makes poverty a crime and violates the Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. Nonetheless, Drake feels he must continue prosecuting these charges as long as the law remains on the books. He has represented the state in more than a dozen failure-to-vacate cases in the past few years.
In all other states, not appearing in civil eviction proceedings typically results in a ruling in favor of the landlord that gives the tenant a certain number of days to leave. Stay, and the landlord can enlist the sheriff to help remove the tenant’s belongings and change the locks, but the tenant does not face criminal charges.
But in Arkansas, the consequences can be more dire. Near the state’s western border in Mena, Jocelyn Mailly, 66, feared jail so much she went to court for her failure-to-vacate hearing in August despite having a fever and a presumptive positive coronavirus diagnosis. She had fallen behind on her monthly mobile home dues in June.
Fearing jail, Jocelyn Mailly came to court even though she was feeling sick with COVID-19 symptoms. She was later evicted through a civil charge and is now living in a cabin tent on her property. (Joshua Asante, special to ProPublica)