First Round Victory in Challenge to Compulsory-Eviction Law
Yesterday, Judge Staci M. Yandle of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois issued temporary restraining orders protecting two Granite City families from eviction under the city’s compulsory-eviction law. Represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), the two families had filed civil-rights lawsuits against the city, the first in August and the second earlier this week.
In recent months, both families found themselves ensnared in Granite City’s compulsory-eviction law. Jessica Barron and Kenny Wylie live with their three children in a modest house in Granite City. They’re buying the home on an installment basis. But since June, the city has taken escalating steps to try to make them homeless. Police officers have pounded on their door. Three officers personally served their landlord with a formal demand “that an eviction notice be served and the eviction process initiated.” And last week, the city served yet another notice, again ordering that their landlord “must begin eviction proceedings.”
The basis for Granite City’s campaign is not that Jessica and Kenny have done anything wrong; it is that a friend of their sixteen-year-old son broke into a restaurant elsewhere in town. Because the friend often spent time at Jessica and Kenny’s home, the city invoked its compulsory-eviction law and demanded that their landlord—co-plaintiff Bill Campbell—evict Jessica, Kenny, and their children. Under the law, the city coerces private landlords to evict entire families if any member of the household—or even a guest—commits a crime anywhere within city limits. It is no defense that the tenants had nothing to do with the crime. Here, in fact, police caught the restaurant burglar only after Jessica discovered him in her home and alerted the authorities. No matter; in the words of Granite City’s Crime Free Housing Officer, “these people need to go.”
Across town, Debi Brumit and Andy Simpson were facing a similar threat of eviction. Like Jessica and Kenny, Debi and Andy had done nothing wrong. Their landlord wanted to keep them in their home. Yet the city was trying to coerce their eviction. The reason? Debi’s adult daughter and the daughter’s new boyfriend had allegedly stolen a van elsewhere in town. Debi and Andy didn’t have anything to do with the crime. In fact, Debi’s daughter didn’t even live with them. She was in town only because Debi had driven her—from Missouri—to a hospital in Granite City to try to get her treatment for substance abuse. For the city, though, it was enough that Debi’s daughter used to live in the home and that she might someday visit her mother for Christmas. So the city demanded that Debi and Andy be evicted, along with two of Debi’s grandchildren (three-years-old and 18-months-old).
Partnering with the Institute for Justice, the two families filed parallel civil-rights lawsuits against the city. The main claims are simple. Under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, Granite City cannot punish entire families because of a houseguest’s misdeeds. And under the Equal Protection Clause, the city certainly cannot single out renters alone for that sort of collective punishment.
“No one should be punished for a crime someone else committed,” said Robert McNamara, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “That simple notion is at the heart of our criminal justice system—that we are all innocent until proven guilty. And yet Granite City is punishing an innocent family for a crime committed by someone they barely knew.”
On October 9, the federal court issued temporary restraining orders protecting both families. The court agreed that any interest the city has in enforcing its compulsory-eviction law “pales in comparison to the loss of one’s home” and ordered the city not to take any steps against either family until a hearing can be held in the case.
“The court’s ruling is such a relief,” said Debi Brumit. “Andy and I have been living under the cloud of the city’s eviction demands for months now. We’ve lived in Granite City for over three years. We’re taking care of two of my grandkids, and I have no idea what we would do if we lost our home.”
“What Granite City is doing is not just wrong; it’s deeply unconstitutional,” said Institute for Justice attorney Sam Gedge. “The Constitution does not allow the government to punish people for crimes other people have committed. The government cannot take away your home—whether you own it or rent it—because of someone else’s misdeeds. We look forward to securing permanent protection for our clients’ homes and their constitutional rights.”
Judge Yandle’s temporary restraining orders will remain in force for the next 13 days. The court has scheduled a hearing in both cases for 10:00 a.m. Central on October 23.