A bill that would remove Arkansas’ unique statute allowing tenants to face criminal charges for not paying rent has failed in the state legislature.
House Bill 1798, sponsored by Fayetteville Democratic Rep. Nicole Clowney, failed to pass in a meeting of the House Insurance and Commerce committee Monday.
Speaking in favor of the bill, Republican Rep. Jimmy Gazaway of Paragould said landlords could still evict tenants through civil proceedings as is the case in every state except Arkansas.
"This is not because of failure to pay, this is failure to vacate. So the crime is not because someone didn’t pay their rent, the crime is because they’ve received 10 days’ notice after they’ve not paid their rent, and they’ve not left the premises," Gazaway said. "Nevertheless, my argument to you is it’s an improper use of the criminal process in what is essentially a civil matter."
Under current law, tenants forfeit their lease agreement if they’re just one day late on paying rent. Then, if tenants don’t vacate the property within 10 days of being notified by their landlord, they can be charged with a misdemeanor. Other charges associated with missing court appearances or returning to the rental property after eviction can lead to fines and even jail time.
Opponents of the bill have said criminal evictions are typically faster and cheaper than civil evictions. William Jones, president of the Arkansas Landlords Association, argued the statute is a useful tool.
"It does not require an attorney, which saves me a considerable amount of money. I find it a little disingenuous and grossly biased that no alternative has been submitted," Jones said. "It seems that it would be fair to at least present something that is as effective as 'failure to vacate' instead of just completely doing away with the current statute."
Clowney said landlords are represented by the state in criminal eviction cases, costing taxpayer dollars.
"This isn’t about portraying landlords as the bad guys. This is about whether government should be a party to such strong-arm tactics to save landlords money, when we don’t do that. We don’t use the government that way in any other scenario, because this should be a civil issue," Clowney said. "Our law enforcement and our courts should be used for public safety, not this."
A number of counties, including Pulaski County, have refused to prosecute or hear criminal eviction cases, while criminal evictions remain fairly popular in other parts of the state, in particular Garland and Miller counties. Lynn Foster with Arkansans for Stronger Communities said roughly 20% of the state’s district courts still hear criminal eviction cases.
The bill failed to gather the 11 votes needed to pass, with eight members voting in favor, seven voting against, and five members either absent or not voting. Arkansas remains the only state in the U.S. to have a criminal eviction statute.