Jessica Barron and Kenneth Wiley say a local law requiring that tenants be evicted if household members or guests are convicted of a crime is unconstitutional. (Credit: Institute for Justice)
An Illinois couple has filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging an attempted eviction, but not against their landlord.
In fact, the couple’s landlord has joined them in the suit, which targets the city where they live. The municipality has tried to throw them out because of a crime committed by a friend of their teenage son's.
Jessica Barron and Kenneth Wylie alleged in a complaint filed Wednesday that an ordinance in Granite City, Illinois, that requires tenants be evicted if household members or guests are convicted of a crime is unconstitutional.
“No one should be punished for a crime someone else committed,” Robert McNamara, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which is representing Barron and Wylie, said in a statement. “That simple notion is at the heart of our criminal justice system — that we are all innocent until proven guilty. And yet Granite City is punishing an innocent family for a crime committed by someone they barely knew.”
According to the complaint, Barron and Wylie are registered foster parents who try to make their home a “safe space” for young people in the neighborhood and often provide meals, laundry and the occasional place to stay for teens with unstable home lives. One such person was a homeless 18-year-old named Jason Lynch, who befriended their 16-year-old son, the complaint said.
In May, Lynch was suspected of robbing a local restaurant and was arrested at Barron and Wylie’s house after Barron alerted the police to his presence, according to the complaint. He later pled guilty, the complaint said.
Even though Lynch did not live at the property and the couple did not allow him to return after his arrest and conviction, Granite City moved to have the family evicted, according to the complaint.
The couple’s landlord, William Campbell, has opposed this plan and joined Barron and Wylie in suing the city.
Campbell operates more than a dozen rental properties in Granite City, according to the complaint. Because he hopes to retire soon, many are leased on a rent-to-own basis, including the house where Barron and Wylie live, the complaint said.
The complaint said Campbell considers the couple good tenants and wants them to stay in the house and eventually obtain ownership of it. But the city has pressured Campbell to evict them and threatened to revoke his rental license, and one uniformed police officer even threatened to arrest him, according to the complaint.
Sam Gedge, another attorney with the Institute for Justice, said that the institute had been aware for a while that Granite City was making “aggressive” use of the law, referred to as a “crime-free” ordinance. According to the complaint, over 300 eviction demands have been issued by the city, which has just under 30,000 people, since 2014.
“This really is a hammer that is used to wreak havoc on innocent people,” Gedge told Law360.
The problem is not unique, he added. While many municipalities have voluntary “crime-free” programs that allow landlords to opt in, some places, like Granite City, impose those requirements on all tenants and landlords.
According to the ACLU of Illinois, these practices have had a particular impact on survivors of domestic violence, who are often required to move because of violent crimes committed against them. The state recently passed a law to protect domestic violence victims in such circumstances, according to the ACLU.
The ACLU has also objected to similar ordinances in other states, including Minnesota, and challenged Savannah, Georgia’s use of a “crime-free” ordinance in a way that the group claimed was racially discriminatory and violated the Fair Housing Act.
Granite City Mayor Ed Hagnauer told Law360 that the city had yet to be served with the complaint and so he could not speak to the specifics of the case. But he said that overall, Granite City was happy with the ordinance, which has been in place for over five years.
Hagnauer said the ordinance has helped the city improve safety and “clean up” certain neighborhoods.
“We’re very happy with the results of the crime-free ordinance and most of our landlords are happy, too,” he said.
He added that people facing eviction under the ordinance can challenge it before a city administrative board and appeal the board’s decision to the mayor, a process that, to his knowledge, Barron and Wylie had not used.
Barron and Wylie alleged in their complaint that the city’s policy violates their constitutional rights to due process, equal protection and freedom of association, as well as other rights. The suit asks the court to order the city to stop enforcing the law.
Gedge said that although there have been other legal challenges to the policy, the Institute for Justice chose to focus on constitutional concerns because those questions haven’t been explored in past cases.
“We think that we’re on solid ground,” he said. “It’s a fundamental principle of our judicial system that the government can’t punish you for somebody else’s crime.”
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