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Is your rental home your castle? Law enforcement says maybe not...

The criminalization of home

Going back to the Middle Ages, the “common law” included an implicit right to occupy a home with some assurance that you could not be made homeless by “the Government.” Back then, “the Government” was actually the man who owned the property you lived in (the lord of the land) and the judge & jury. This common law principle is commonly called “a man's home is his castle.” However, this fundamental principle is under attack by city and state law enforcers. This attack takes many forms that tenants and advocates need to understand and resist.

Nuisance abatement laws have been common in Ohio since the 1980's when the "War on Drugs" became a war on drug houses. Ohio's Nuisance law (ORC 3767) has been used to shut down residential properties where a nuisance (eg. drug selling) has been a blight on the neighborhood. Never mind that the drug dealers, being flush with cash, just move down the street and the innocent bystanders are left to shuffle to a homeless shelter. Never mind that the criminals are often never prosecuted...just moved along. The police and prosecutors look good in the headlines.  

Nuisance call laws is another form of the “criminalization of home” The idea is that police departments can reduce their work loads by tracking who's making police calls for help and then “pressuring” landlords to evict the callers. Landlords, afraid of being charged with being a nuisance property, often comply even though the the caller has done nothing more than call for help. Victims of domestic violence are often caught up in these laws and tenants in high crime areas can be left defenseless by their public servants.  

Increasingly, criminal trespass orders ("banning") are issued by landlords and enforced by local cops as another way to force tenants and their guests from the premises. Any property owner can make a “criminal trespass charge against any other person under ORC 2911.21 then call the cops to enforce the owner. What police and prosecutors should do is determine the facts of the situation to see if there really are grounds in criminal law. Too often, they take the landlord's word and bar the tenant or guest from the premises. 

Health and safety code enforcement can rob tenants and residents of their rights. Twice in the past 12 months, local authorities have threatened to dispossess residents (manufactured home park and residential motel) when there was a utility shutoff. In both cases the residents had done nothing wrong, but a governmental body (Health Department in Marion and State Fire Marshall in Etna) decided that the utility shut off created a public safety emergency. 

Too often police and prosecutors use "criminalization" tactics on low income and minority households. suffer. How often do you hear of a suburban homeowner forced into a motel or shelter because of a utility shut off? 
There are good examples of how city officials can work with tenants and residents to ensure the residents' safety. 

Sometimes landlords are accomplices of the law enforcement. Given the choice between being prosecuted or denying the rental rights of a tenant, landlords opt to force tenants out. A very disturbing story out of Pennsylvania illustrates the “catch 22” for a landlord who rented to a returning citizen (former inmate) after the city passed a law barring such rentals.  Landlords are also depending on cops to enforce bogus criminal trespassing laws against tenants and guests who have been “banned” from the property. And, in at least two Ohio communities, landlords can hire off duty law enforcement officers to deliver “3 day notice to vacate,” which is a warning to leave before an eviction begins. Tenants who don't understand the eviction process (that's most tenants) cut and run, saving the landlord the cost of filing a formal eviction.

RHINO is not arguing that tenants or residents who are using their homes in a criminal manner should be shielded from the law. Tenants who threaten their neighbors and community deserve the attention of law enforcement. But criminalization of home is something different. No proof of wrongdoing required, no recourse for the dispossessed. That's why there are criminal laws and enforcement agencies. Selective enforcement is the biggest problem. 

Two outstanding examples of criminalization of home come from Los Angeles County and New York City where law enforcement agencies have used their power to undermine minority households. In LA County, the Housing Authority, two suburban cities and the County Sheriffs department paid $2 million to settle a Justice Department claim for intimidating Housing Choice Voucher tenants who moved to certain suburbs outside of LA. In New York City, the NYPD is charged with riding roughshod over innocent tenants under the guise of drug enforcement ( LINK) Think it can't happen here? Why then did the First Suburbs of Greater Cleveland demand and receive a notice from Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing when an HCV household moved into one of “their” communities. (see attachment below)

What to do about this troubling trend? RHINO has two recommendations: resist any attempt to criminalize innocent tenants/residents and publicize incidents where tenants and residents are made into innocent victims by law enforcement and prosecutors.
  • Resisting takes the forms of defending tenants/residents who are threatened with dispossession by local law enforcement. Kudos to Columbus Legal Aid for coming to the rescue when residents at DK Trailer Park where threatened by the Marion County Health Department. Resistance also means examining local laws to see that they don't open the door to abuse. Cincinnati Legal Aid has worked closely with local law enforcement to assure that the nuisance call ordinance in the Queen City is not used against innocent bystanders. Similarly, Ohio Poverty Law Center (OPLC) has worked with the Ohio House to shape proposed legislation that would expand the scope of the Ohio Nuisance statute.
  • Publicizing injustice can help too. Raising a public outcry over the abuse of discretion against low income and minority tenants and residents can put local police and prosecutors “on notice” that arbitrary treatment of tenants is unacceptable. 
RHINO believes that Ohioans still believe that home = castle is a principle of their basic freedoms. Tenants and residents should not be thrown out of their homes without evidence of wrong doing that is judged by a court of law.            
posted April 24, 2016
 What's News?

Criminal mischief?
     House Bill 282 would raise criminal penalties for damaging a landlord's property and would strip away the right to apply for HUD assisted housing in Ohio. Proponent testimony was offered in the State House this week. COHHIO is preparing opponent testimony. 
     Sponsors agree that there's already a law against criminal (ie. intentional) damaging, but prosecutors rarely use it...preferring to keep tenant damages in the civil court process (security deposits and small claims court.) 
     One may suspect that landlords want more criminal penalties to attract law enforcers to bring charges on their behalf...using the prosecutor's office as a collection agency.

Nuisance laws and victims of domestic violence
     Plain Dealer reports on ACLU campaign against local nuisance laws. From the article: "Here's how the laws work: Communities can declare a property a nuisance after a certain number of police responses to complaints for incidents spelled out in the nuisance ordinance. Among them are loud noise, barking dogs, and other crimes. Many such ordinances locally and across the country include domestic violence as one of those 'nuisance' crimes. But what if the person making the call to police is the victim of domestic violence? Calls for help might lead to the property being declared a nuisance. And once a nuisance is declared, communities levy fines for every police call. What happens then, says Mike Brickner, senior policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, is that landlords who are facing fines evict their problem tenants. Or, worse, victims simply stop calling police." 
     Using landlords to crack down on people calling for help is a particularly insidious way of "criminalizing tenancy."

June 17, 2016 Newark Advocate  
Residents (some would argue tenants) get summary displacement, but removing tires involves "due process: ETNA - Some residents are calling a now-close d motel on U.S. 40 a nuisance after seeing tires and household items pile up outside of it, and township officials contend they are doing what they can to force the hotel to clean up its act. The motel, which is on the southwest corner of U.S. 40 and Watkins Road, has been closed since March. That is when the Ohio Fire Marshal's Office served the motel's tenants with an evacuation notice because there was no power in the motel, creating potential safety issues. Etna Township Trustee John Carlisle said the township is aware of the complaints, and Carlisle added it is doing what it can to address the issue. 'It's not like we haven't done anything," Carlisle said. "We have, but it's a process. We have to abide by the legal process.'"  

Families made homeless overnight in Etna

      WSYX (Channel 6) in Columbus is reporting on families displaced from the Shamrock Motel near suburban Pataskala (between Columbus and Newark). "Dozens of Licking County residents were forced from the motel they were living in and are trying to figure out on the fly where they can go next. Tammy Fraker is one of those people without a 'Plan B.' 'I'm heartbroken. My home is gone. It's got to stop! People have got to care and this place doesn't care obviously,' Fraker said. Fraker says she and nearly 30 others were told they had to move out of the Shamrock Motel by the end of the day."
     Additional coverage in the Newark Advocate makes clear that the evacuation order was given by the State Fire Marshall's office, reportedly because the electricity was shut off by AEP due to non payment. Do you have to leave your home under police escort when the power is shut off?  There's something going else going on here.

      Hotel and motel guests are not covered by the Ohio Landlord Tenant Law unless they can make the case that their occupancy is not "transient." ( ORC 5321.01 (C) (3) ) Without tenant protections, they are subject to immediate removal. The story also alludes to the involvement of the State Fire Marshall, but it is not clear from the story if the families were displaced because of a state order.
     Typical indications are the length of the occupancy agreement and the types of services provided. As the affordability crisis continues, more and more non-traditional housing arrangements can be expected. 

Thanks to Slumlord Watch of Columbus for sharing this story.
Posted March 23, 2016

February 8, 2013 Report: Unpaid rent can lead to arrest in Arkansas:
A report published this week by Human Rights Watch (HRW) explores a unique, punitive law in Arkansas that burns hundreds of beleaguered renters in the state every year. According to the 44-page report, “Pay the Rent or Face Arrest: Abusive Impacts of Arkansas’s Criminal Evictions Law,” Arkansas tenants have been “dragged into criminal court for transgressions that would not be a crime in any other U.S. state” under the failure-to-vacate law, which allows criminal charges to be brought against individuals late on rent payments who fail to vacate the rented property.
reposted June 13, 2016