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A legislative attempt to restore Arkansas' criminal-eviction statute stalled in a Senate committee Wednesday after more than an hour of debate among landlord and tenant advocates.

Arkansas' law -- the only one in the nation allowing landlords to seek criminal charges against delinquent tenants -- has been inactive for nearly two years after being ruled unconstitutional by a Pulaski County judge in 2015.

Senate Bill 25 would remove the most recent changes to the law that caused it to be struck down. Lawmakers said Wednesday that they would give law enforcement officials and prosecutors the authority to begin charging overdue tenants again under an older version of the law that had been upheld in both federal and state courts.

But doing so would bring back an antiquated process for evictions, critics argued, and could amount to unconstitutional debtors prisons.

The criminal-eviction statutes, Arkansas Code Annotated 18-16-101, date back to 1901 and make it a misdemeanour to refuse to vacate after 10 days' notice for failing to pay rent. The law was amended a century later to allow for a jail sentence of up to three months.

SB25 got a partial voice of support from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday but failed to reach the five-vote threshold for passage to the full chamber. Two of the eight committee members were absent for the vote.

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Echoing the sentiments of landlords who described drawn-out evictions, the legislation's sponsor, Sen. Blake Johnson, R- Corning, said he was not interested in delaying action to reinstate the law.

The only Democrat on the eight-member committee, Sen. Will Bond of Little Rock, agreed that evictions in the state can be sped up, but requested more time to find a solution that takes into account tenants' concerns. Bond was the only committee member to vote against endorsing the bill.

The committee chairman, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, said he also desired compromise, and abstained from voting Wednesday, leaving the motion to recommend passage one vote short.

Lawmakers on the committee said they had heard from constituents, or had personal experience, dealing with tenants who could not pay and would not leave.

Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, said she had personally lost money from delinquent tenants.

"There is a problem of not being able to get dope heads, and people that have kids that are even questionable, out," Sen. Terry Rice, R- Waldron, said. "When you can't get them out, when they're tearing up the place ... you've got to have some laws in place."

Those laws are already in place, said James Auer, a lawyer for Legal Aid of Arkansas who represents tenants in eviction cases. Landlords can use civil action to remove tenants who are behind on their rent, without having them arrested, he said.

Auer testified that the process for obtaining a criminal eviction can take longer than a civil unlawful detainer. Even under the old criminal law, Auer said, tenants could be jailed for failing to pay their fines or restitution.

A federal lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas is seeking to have the law ruled unconstitutional, but a judge has stayed a ruling on the case pending the outcome of the Senate bill.

A Section on 01/26/2017

Print Headline: Criminal-eviction bill shy of votes

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