Arkansas Has Worst Eviction Law in Country

If you think New York’s laws favor landlords over tenants, you would not want to live in Arkansas. Under the state’s “failure to vacate” law, tenants who are even a day late on their rent can be evicted on 10 days’ notice and charged with a misdemeanor if they’re not out by then.

The law “sees tenants charged as criminals purely on their landlords’ say-so, without any independent investigation by prosecutors,” Human Rights Watch said in “Pay Your Rent or Face Arrest,” a report released last month. “On top of all that, the law is written in a way that tramples on tenants’ due process rights, punishing those who do not plead guilty.” Tenants who plead not guilty have to pay the amount the landlord says they owe to the court before they can get a trial. In the Little Rock suburb of Jacksonville, they’re held on $250 bail.

More than 1,200 tenants were prosecuted under the law last year, and more than 100 convicted. Most of the others agreed to move immediately in exchange for getting the charges dropped. About 900,000 people, one-third of the state’s residents, live in rented homes.

Arkansas is the only state with such a law, the report said. All others treat evictions as a civil matter. Arkansas has a civil-eviction process too, but it’s generally considered slow and cumbersome. 

The criminal-evictions law essentially defines not paying rent as stealing from the landlord. This not only penalizes tenants who can’t pay their rent because of economic distress such as losing a job; it also effectively outlaws rent strikes. (Arkansas also has no “warranty of habitability” that requires owners to keep their property fit for human habitation, such as by providing heat and maintaining plumbing.)

“Some tenants withhold rent to try and press an abusive landlord to repair a broken hot water heater, or a leaky roof,” the report said. “But under Arkansas law none of this is relevant, so many judges cut tenants off before they can utter a word of the stories they wanted the court to hear. The only questions legally relevant to a judge are, ‘Did you pay the rent on time?’ and ‘Are you out?’”

 “The law can sometimes be even more abusive in practice than it is on paper,” the report adds. In West Memphis, a woman was sentenced to probation even though she said she had been in the hospital after suffering a stroke when the eviction notice was served. And one Little Rock attorney’s Web site advises landlords that they can use it “to circumvent federal laws that bar them from evicting active duty service members while they are serving overseas.”