JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal judge has declared that a Mississippi law allowing landlords to seize tenants' belongings during the eviction process is unconstitutional.
In his Tuesday order, U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills called the Mississippi law “unpredictable and absurd" and said it goes farther than eviction statutes in any other state in the U.S.
Under current law, “Mississippi tenants who overstay their lease may be confronted with the loss of virtually everything they own, even cherished belongings such as family photos and diplomas which have no discernable economic value to the lessor," Mills wrote.
Mills was tasked with reviewing Mississippi's law after Columbus resident Samantha Conner filed a lawsuit against an apartment rental company, the apartment's owner and manager and the Lowndes County constable last year. She was aided by a low-income housing clinic at the University of Mississippi School of Law.
When she was evicted in 2019, Conner said, her landlord changed the locks on her apartment and refused to let her take any of her belongings inside. Those belongings included her computer and hard drive needed for her work as a paralegal, keepsakes from when her son was a baby, family photographs and personal records.
Many of her personal items were later discarded by her landlord.
“In the court’s view, it can only be regarded as an act of pure mean-spiritedness and spite that Casteel deemed it preferable to throw plaintiff’s cherished personal items in a dumpster rather than allow her to keep them or return them to her,” Mills wrote in his order.
Mills said these mean-spirited actions were “encouraged by Mississippi eviction statutes, which engage in the legal fiction that a plaintiff who fails to timely vacate her apartment, as required by an eviction order, has irrevocably ‘abandoned’ her property."
That's the case even if a person is present in the property at the time of the eviction and “makes it clear that she is prepared to leave, but wishes to do so with her property,” Mills wrote.
Other states deal with this differently. In West Virginia, for example, for the personal property of an overstaying tenant to be deemed “abandoned,” the landlord must receive a statement from the tenant in writing to that effect.
The West Virginia statute further provides that any property seized by the landlord must be removed and stored at the tenant’s expense. The landlord may only dispose of the items after 30 days, if the tenant has no taken possession of the items or paid the landlord for their storage.
Mills' order will be stayed pending an appeal. Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch's Chief of Staff Michelle Williams said Friday that the office was reviewing the order and evaluating its next steps. The Legislature will have a chance to review the law during its session, which starts in January.
In a statement Friday, Mississippi Center for Justice spokesperson Patrick Taylor called the state's eviction laws “oppressive."
"Mississippi landlords enjoy a lightning-quick eviction process that is unimpeded by considerations of tenant rights or the hardships that can be visited upon tenants by depriving them of their homes and personal property," he said. "Mississippi’s eviction process, at every step, favors expediency over protection of the rights of tenants."
Taylor said the center views the ruling as “an opportunity for the Mississippi legislature to fix our eviction laws and craft an eviction process that is fair and passes constitutional muster.”
Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.