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Saturday, July 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Fourth Circuit befuddled by Baltimore eviction law that gives landlords their tenants’ property

A city ordinance passed in 2007 aimed to curb the blight left behind after thousands of evictions, but judges wondered if there wasn't a better way to notify renters.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) —The Fourth Circuit Friday heard a due process challenge to a Baltimore ordinance that gives landlords ownership of evicted tenants' property. 

In 2022, a federal court in Maryland found that Baltimore's Clean Street Bill violated tenants Marshall and Tiffany Todman's procedural due process rights. According to the Todmans, the city designed the ordinance to transfer ownership of tenants' belongings to landlords. When their landlord changed the locks during their eviction, the Todmans lost almost everything.

Rather than defending the ordinance, attorney Michael Redmond, representing Baltimore, attempted to deflect blame away from Charm City. He claims the ordinance doesn't violate due process. He says that the problem lies with the actions of the state and the sheriff's office, which carried out the eviction. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Harvie Wilkinson sounded less than impressed. He asked Redmond why the city doesn't ask the state to carry out their ordinance in a better way, or repeal it if there is a strong possibility of bad outcomes. 

"It's your ordinance, isn't it?" the Ronald Reagan appointee asked. "I think you might do well defending the ordinance." 

The law applies not only to those who refuse to pay rent but also to tenants like the Todmans, who wanted to move and had found another place to live but needed to remain in the leased property until they could move into their new place.

The Todmans claim they received little to no warning that their landlord would get possession of their belongings. 

"As a result of the forced abandonment of their personal property, the Todmans lost — and Mr. Collins gained — clothing, furniture, electronics, kitchenware, jewelry, family photos, recreational items and the ashes of Ms. Todman's grandfather," attorneys representing the Todman's wrote in their brief. "Most was never returned." 

Wilkinson sympathized with tenants, who would have to read a lot of fine print to understand the procedures thoroughly. 

"You're dealing with people who aren't lawyers, and it's really confusing," Wilkinson said. "Why is it such a burden on the city to have a simple notice?" 

Before the 2007 ordinance — and still — in most of the state, a landlord-tenant court would grant a landlord's request for a warrant of restitution if tenants had received notice but refused to move out. The sheriff executing the warrant places the previous tenant's property on the street, at the tenant's risk. 

With upwards of 7,000 evictions per year, Baltimore sought to clear the streets of left-behind chattel. 

"The sheriff's deputies would end up leaving piles of evictees' personal property (mattresses, clothes, broken furniture, etc.) on the city's sidewalks, streets and alleyways," attorneys representing the city wrote in their brief. "Most often in the city's most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods which could least afford the additional blight, debris and demoralization that such public displays of instability created." 

The ordinance shifted responsibility for the property from the city to landlords, who can do what they please with the possessions so long as they didn't dispose of them on public property.

"The city of Baltimore doesn't control the district court, doesn't control the landlords," Redmond said. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanie Thacker, a Barack Obama appointee, asked Redmond what the city could control regarding its ordinance. Attorney Conor O'Croinin of Zuckerman Spaeder, representing the Todmans, told the three-judge panel that the city is responsible for the outcomes of its law.

"When the city undertook to deprive tenants holding over of their personal property, like the Todmans, it took on the obligation," O'Croinin said. "It took on the obligation under the due process clause to provide a modicum of due process to avoid an unfair or mistake deprivation."  

Wilkinson asked Redmond what interest the city has in not providing the utmost transparency to its residents. 

"The strenuousness of your objections befuddles me," Wilkinson said. "How hard would it be to have a plain, simple notice to tell these folks about the date of eviction and presumption of abandonment — that seems to me just a matter of the city of Baltimore treating its citizens, some of whom are going to be its more destitute citizens, treating them with a basic measure of fairness."

Redmond replied that the state is responsible for distributing notices. Wilkinson told Redmond he was playing a shell game.

The public, including tenants rights groups, initially supported the measure, which included three days for tenants to reclaim their property and three forms of notice. 

After consulting with the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, the city gutted the ordinance of the notices and three-day period requirements. 

After a three-day trial, a jury ordered the city to pay the Todmans $186,000 in damages for the seizure of their personal property and the emotional distress it caused. 

The Public Justice Center, Civil Justice, Homeless Persons Representation Project and Maryland Legal Aid submitted a brief in favor of the Todmans, saying that Baltimore's plague of evictions is rooted in the city's history of racialized economic segregation. 

"Baltimore renters in rent court disproportionality reside in predominantly Black, low-income and under-resourced neighborhoods instilled by generations of segregation and disinvestment," the tenants rights advocates wrote in their brief.

Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Henry Floyd, another Obama appointee, tuned into the hearing via livestream. Attorneys representing the city and its challengers declined requests for comment. 

Categories / Appeals, Briefs, Civil Rights, Courts, Homelessness

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