Landlord Seizing Tenant's Belongings During Eviction Mean-Spirited, Unconstitutional: Judge

A federal judge this week ruled that in addition to landlords acting on the Mississippi law being mean-spirited to evicted tenants, the law that allows them to seize belongings in the home is unconstitutional, to begin with, according to The Associated Press.

The ruling is in response to a woman who filed a lawsuit after being evicted, saying the owner of the apartment changed the locks and instead of letting her take her property and valuables, like a computer used for her job as a paralegal, and family keepsakes, the landlord threw most of her things in the trash.

U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills issued the order Tuesday, saying the "unpredictable and absurd" law is harsher than any other eviction law in the country.

Samantha Conner of Columbus, Mississippi sued her apartment rental company, the apartment owner, and the Lowndes County Constable in 2020 for the landlord's actions following her 2019 eviction.

"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 the order.

He said the state's harsh laws even encourage the behavior because it allows landlords to act the instant a tenant does not vacate a home after the time frame allotted in an eviction order.

Following the order, the state legislature will likely evaluate the existing eviction laws during the legislative session that begins in January.

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below.

Eviction, Mississippi
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) attend a news conference to introduce legislation that would give the Department of Health and Human Services the power to impose a federal eviction moratorium in the interest of public health, on Capitol Hill September 21, 2021 in Washington, D.C. A Mississippi judge this week ruled the seizure of a tenant's belongings allowed under state law was unconstitutional and "mean-spirited." Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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 discernible economic value to the lessor," Mills wrote.

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.

Conner was aided by a low-income housing clinic at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

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 not 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.

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."