What Do Prostitution and the Failure to Pay Rent Have In Common?
Arkansas is the only state to criminalize the failure to pay rent. I'll just leave that sentence here for you to re-read in a moment.
If a tenant enters into a residential lease with his landlord, he is always contractually required to pay rent in exchange for a place to live. In simplest terms, the parties have a private rental agreement. In most states, if the tenant breaches this agreement, the landlord has a right to initiate eviction proceedings and can pursue civil remedies and collect damages in the form of back rent and actual damage to the premises. A prevailing party in such a lawsuit can often recover his attorney's fees.
All of the above is true in Arkansas, however, the landlord also has another remedy he can pursue. The landlord has the right to retain the taxpayer-funded prosecuting attorney to enforce a private landlord-tenant agreement in furtherance of an eviction and seek criminal penalties against the tenant. Under current law, the failure to pay rent will currently subject a tenant to the following:
- A fine of $25.00 per day for each day the tenant fails to vacate the premises;
- A criminal conviction in the form of a Class B misdemeanor. Class B misdemeanors carry fines of up to $1000, and up to 90 days in jail. See Ark. Code Ann. 18-16-101.
Now re-read that first sentence. No other state has a similar law. For reference, prostitution is also a Class B misdemeanor. Is the Arkansas legislature trying to tell us that prostitution and the failure to pay rent are comparable offenses?
Newly introduced Senate Bill 25
attempts to "clarify" the existing law by eliminating provisions related to the deposit of disputed rent and defining the criminal offense as a Class B misdemeanor. It does not decriminalize the failure to pay or vacate, however, as other portions of the statute still define the failure to pay and vacate as a misdemeanor offense. In essence, this token bill does nothing to clarify, modernize, or otherwise improve Arkansas law.
Here's the often discovered "rub" in landlord-tenant evictions: it creates a downward spiral. If a tenant cannot afford to pay rent, he also cannot afford to pay a fine of $25.00 per day; or the additional $1000.00 fine associated with a criminal conviction. A criminal conviction will certainly ruin the chances the tenant may have of obtaining or maintaining gainful employment, where said tenant could earn a wage to pay his rent. Nevermind the court costs and attorneys fees he also faces.
There are other social issues to consider. Do our prosecutors even want these cases? Why should citizens bear the expense associated with prosecuting a private landlord-tenant agreement? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.