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ACLU of Arkansas sues over law allowing courts to jail tenants with unpaid rent

by John Lynch | June 15, 2020 at 6:09 p.m.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas filed suit in federal court Monday to overturn the state law that allows courts to jail tenants who don’t pay their rent.

The civil rights group, joined by the Bowen Law School Legal Clinic, the Center for Arkansas Legal Services and Legal Aid of Arkansas, contend that Arkansas Code 18-16-101 denies renters their right to due process in violation of state and federal constitutions.

Arkansas is the only state that criminalizes evictions, subjecting renters to arrest and misdemeanor punishments. Under Arkansas law, a tenant who is one day late on rent can be immediately ordered to vacate the property. Each day the renter fails to leave is criminal offense under the law.

The ACLU is representing Edrin Allen, 36, of McGehee in the suit that names as defendants Gibbs Ferguson, the city attorney for McGehee, Desha County Sheriff Larry Allen and Sarah Farrar-Phillips, as chief clerk of the 27th State District Court in McGehee.

The suit states that Allen fell behind on his $400 monthly rent after losing his factory-worker job around the end of April and has not been able to find a new job, due in part to the covid-19 pandemic. He’s also been denied unemployment.

Sheriff’s deputies on Friday told him that he had to be out of the house Sunday but Allen continues to live in the home because he has no other place to go, according to the lawsuit which states prosecution is “imminent.”

Allen and the legal aid groups are asking U.S. District Judge Brian Miller to issue a temporary restraining order to prohibit Allen from being removed from the property until a trial can be held on the constitutionality of the statute.

CORRECTION: The suit names Desha County Sheriff Larry Allen. A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the county.

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