Illinois Family Sues to End Law Threatening Them With Compulsory Eviction for a Crime They Did Not Commit

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · August 1, 2019

On a sunny afternoon last month, Jessica Barron and Kenny Wylie were startled to hear a knock on the door of their home on a quiet street in Granite City, Illinois, a suburb of St. Louis. The knock quickly turned into pounding and a call: “Police, open up!” Adrenaline rushing, they told their kids to go to their rooms, and then went to the door to find a group of police officers standing on their porch. The officers were there to serve an eviction notice—not an eviction notice from their landlord (who knew nothing about it), but an eviction notice from the city. Under a city ordinance, the notice said, Jessica and Kenny’s family had to be evicted immediately because a member of their “household”—actually a teenage friend of their son who stayed with them sometimes—had committed a crime.

Faced with the imminent threat of eviction for a crime they did not commit, Jessica and Kenny, along with their landlord Bill Campbell, decided to fight back. Partnering with the Institute for Justice (IJ), they today filed a federal lawsuit challenging Granite City’s compulsory-eviction ordinance, which allows police to force landlords to evict an entire household after anyone who has stayed in the house—even a house guest—commits a crime.

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“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.”

Jessica and Kenny’s problems started this winter when a friend of their teenage son asked if he could crash on their couch. Jessica and Kenny have always prided themselves on their ability to provide a safe haven for young people who are facing troubles or have nowhere else to turn, so with temperatures plunging below zero, they told him he could stay.

But the arrangement didn’t work out: Jessica caught the young man trying to steal from her, and it eventually came out that many of the stories he told them simply weren’t true. Among other things, he said that his mother was dead when she was very much alive and well. So, they told him he had to go. Unfortunately, they were not the only people the young man tried to steal from; he tried to steal from others, including committing a burglary at a nearby restaurant.

He was quickly arrested for the burglary. In fact, Jessica was the one who turned him in to the police, after she found him hiding in her crawlspace. He pled guilty, was sentenced to probation, and his case was closed. But for Jessica and Kenny, that was just the beginning of their troubles.

Under Granite City’s so-called “crime-free housing” ordinance, private landlords are required (on pain of fines or revocation of their rental license) to evict an entire household of tenants if police believe any member—even a house guest—committed a crime. There is no requirement that the tenants participated in or even knew about the crime: If one member of the household is a criminal, the whole household can automatically be punished for their crime. That is true even if the tenants’ landlord wants them to stay, which is the case here. Jessica and Kenny’s landlord, Bill, sees no reason for them to leave: They are good tenants, and they have long since removed the teenager who committed the burglary from the house.

“I don’t know what we’ll do,” said Jessica. “Buying a home isn’t an option for us, and with an eviction on our record, it’ll be nearly impossible to find another place to rent. I cannot believe we could end up homeless because we choose to open our home to someone in need—someone we trusted, but who was not the person he claimed to be.”

Granite City’s compulsory-eviction law traces its roots to “one-strike” policies adopted by public-housing authorities in the 1980s and 1990s. Those laws were controversial but ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court in 2002. But in permitting those laws in public housing, the Court made very clear that its ruling was limited to a setting where the government was acting as landlord and that the analysis would be very different if the government tried to use its regulatory powers to force private landlords or tenants to follow a similar rule.

Despite the Supreme Court’s warning, municipalities across the country have adopted these so-called “crime-free” ordinances. The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law identified more than 50 municipalities in Illinois alone with such ordinances. Ultimately, these ordinances have little to do with punishing criminals and everything to do with punishing renters who happen to be friends, family or even just roommates with a person who commits a crime.

“Your home is your castle, whether you own it or rent it, and a lease is no different than a deed in terms of the property rights it confers,” said IJ attorney Sam Gedge. “The government cannot extinguish those rights just because it chooses not to respect them. No one thinks Granite City could get away with evicting a homeowner, or forcing their bank to foreclose on them just because a teenage roommate broke the law.”

Gedge continued: “What Granite City is doing is not just wrong, it is plainly unconstitutional. The Constitution does not allow the government to punish people for who their roommates are or for crimes other people have committed. The government cannot take away your home—whether you own it or rent it—because of something someone else did somewhere else.”

This is not the first time the Institute for Justice has litigated in the St. Louis area. In 2015, IJ filed a class action lawsuit challenging the City of Pagedale’s use of municipal fines for trivial housing code violations to raise government revenue. That lawsuit resulted in a court order ending Pagedale’s abusive system and put in place a monitoring plan to ensure it never returns.

“Government officials cannot treat people as second-class citizens simply because they are poor or renters,” said IJ President and General Counsel Scott Bullock. “Property rights are property rights for renters and owners alike, and IJ is committed to ensuring that those rights are protected for all Americans.”