The city was sued Thursday over a “one-strike” law it has used to seize rental property and evict tenants even when third parties are suspected of illegal drug or gun activity.
Civil rights lawyers said the practice in Wilkes-Barre goes too far to crack down on crime.
They accused the city of evicting innocent renters and punishing landlords unaware of any illegal activity.
“This law is so powerful that it punishes an awful lot of innocent people, and that’s why it can’t be allowed to stand,” said one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Witold “Vic” Walczak of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
Wilkes-Barre solicitor Tim Henry said the city hasn’t seen a copy of the lawsuit and typically doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Municipalities around Pennsylvania have passed landlord-tenant laws that seek to clean up troubled neighborhoods. There are similar ordinances in Williamsport, Dunmore and Scranton, but it appears that Williamsport is the only other city besides Wilkes-Barre actively enforcing its law, the ACLU said.
Wilkes-Barre’s ordinance permits city officials to evict tenants and close a rental unit for six months when a landlord or tenant has “implied or actual knowledge” of drug or gun activity on the premises. City officials do not have to first prove the allegations in court. Landlords and tenants can appeal, but the appeals process can take longer than six months, the ACLU said.
The city used the law more than 25 times since its enactment in September 2013.
One of the plaintiffs, 28-year-old landlord Adam Peters, was unable to rent his unit after police raided it and arrested the tenant’s boyfriend – who was not on the lease and, as far as Peters knew, did not live there – for drug offenses.
Mayor Tom Leighton held a news conference outside Peters’ rental property and declared the city was “cracking down on the landlords that are bringing filth and dirt and crime into our city,” the lawsuit said.
Peters, a trucker, said Thursday he conducts rental checks on all his tenants, employs a property manager and tries to be a good landlord.
“I did not do anything wrong, yet I was the one who reaped the harsh results,” said Peters, who lost $3,750 in income over the six months he was prevented from renting out his unit.
Another plaintiff, Elizabeth Mattern, 31, was kicked out of her apartment after allowing her 4-year-old daughter’s father to stay there for a few hours.
While Mattern was at work, police raided the building in search of the man, for whom they had an arrest warrant, and found two drug scales he’d put in Mattern’s apartment, the lawsuit said.
When Mattern returned home, police said she was no longer allowed to live there and gave her 10 minutes to retrieve her clothes and leave, the lawsuit said. Police then handcuffed Mattern, releasing her after a few hours without charges, the suit said.
A third plaintiff, 54-year-old Tina Hall, who is legally deaf, was evicted from her apartment after police found an illegal weapon her son had hidden there. Hall and her 17-year-old daughter had to stay with an older daughter and infant grandchild in a tiny apartment not intended for four people.
“The first thing you feel is fear,” said Hall, tearing up as she recounted her ordeal at a news conference. “The first thing you think is about where I’m going.”
Walczak said the law deprives tenants and landlords of due process.
“If (city officials) went to a judge under landlord-tenant code and tried to evict tenants under these circumstances, they would get laughed out of court,” he said.
The ACLU won a separate renter-and-landlord rights case last year over a Norristown law that evicted tenants who officials claimed were making too many 911 calls. The borough was forced to repeal the ordinance as part of a $495,000 settlement with a woman who was afraid to call police even though she was being attacked by an ex-boyfriend.