BOOM BOOM BOOM.
The aggressive knock was unmistakably the knock of a police officer. IJ Attorney Sam Gedge and I looked at each other, wondering whether we should have brushed up on our Fourth Amendment law before we came to town. But the banging was not a precursor to a major law-enforcement raid. Instead, the police had come to Jessica Barron and Kenny Wiley’s house to serve an eviction notice to their landlord
Sam and I were sitting in the living room in Jessica and Kenny’s modest home in Granite City, Illinois, because we had heard that the St. Louis suburb had one of the nation’s worst and most aggressively enforced compulsory eviction laws. Under these laws, landlords are compelled to evict their tenants if any member of their tenant’s “household” commits a crime. Compulsory eviction laws exist in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of municipalities across the country and treat people who rent like second-class citizens, trampling their rights even when everyone agrees that they are innocent.
View the Granite City press release here.
Jessica and Kenny are a perfect example. Though they did nothing wrong, town officials are bound and determined to turn their entire family out onto the street—against the wishes of their landlord—because a temporary houseguest committed a crime. This guest, a friend of their teenage son who had stayed with the family off and on over the winter, had (unbeknownst to them) burglarized a restaurant across town. Even before the teen faced the legal consequences for his actions, Jessica and Kenny had seen his behavioral problems and told him he was no longer welcome in their home.
But that was not the end of things. This summer, Jessica ran into a local police officer who expressed surprise that she and her family still had a home. “I am personally evicting you,” the officer told Jessica, promising to arrest her landlord for his failure to evict the family.
The officer meant business. Even as Sam and I were on our way out to investigate the case, a Granite City police officer left an angry voicemail for Bill Campbell, Jessica and Kenny’s landlord, telling him in no uncertain terms that “these people need to go.” And then the door-knocking started, resulting in perhaps the first-ever IJ client meeting to be crashed by law enforcement. The letter the police served on Bill informed him that he would be fined and could even lose his business license if Jessica and Kenny were not promptly evicted.
Bill had 15 days to comply. That meant Sam and I had just two weeks to draft a federal lawsuit and a motion for preliminary injunction so we could to beat Granite City to the punch and keep Jessica and Kenny in their home.
The timeline was brutal, but our argument was simple: No one should be punished for a crime that someone else committed. A lease is a property right, just like a deed is, and the question of whether Jessica and Kenny are evicted should be between them and their landlord. Government officials cannot compel a private landlord to evict tenants against his will just because those tenants know someone who committed a crime.
IJ’s case in Granite City is designed to ensure that innocent people—renters and owners alike—don’t have to worry about scary knocks on the door from people looking to punish them for other people’s misdeeds. But until those knocks stop, IJ will be there to answer them.
Robert McNamara is an IJ senior attorney.