Virtual eviction hearings often deprive tenants of their rights

Tyler Marks, his wife, Maranda, and their daughter, Layla, 3, and two sons, Hayden, 7, and Atticus, 1.

Courtesy of the Marks family

His name is Tyler Marks. But he appeared on the gray screen during his eviction hearing as Call-in User_3.

Unemployed for most of the pandemic, Marks could not afford a laptop or computer with a video camera, so he called his trial in February.

As he stood with his phone in the bathroom, away from where his children could hear, he thought about where he and his family would go if they were forced to leave their home in Walkertown, North Carolina. . He and his wife, Maranda, have three children: Hayden, 7, Layla, 3, and Atticus, 1. His mind went blank.

“We had no savings,” said Marks, 27.

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During the coronavirus pandemic, deportation hearings across the country have shifted from the courtroom to the computer. By November 2020, 43 states have encouraged or allowed remote deportation procedures, according to a study by Emily benfer, visiting professor of law at Wake Forest University. Meanwhile, seven state courts have ordered the eviction hearings to be postponed.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has banned evictions for nonpayment until July, many homeowners continue to file them. It is only during their hearings that tenants can attempt to invoke the protection of the health agency. Many landlords are also finding ways to evict people for reasons that CDC policy doesn’t cover, such as saying their tenant’s lease has expired, when non-payment is the real problem, say the defenders. All of these issues underscore, they say, the importance of a fair trial.

Yet remote evictions, which occur on video platforms like Zoom or WebEx, often deprive tenants of their legal rights, housing advocates say. Participants are often silent. Internet connection problems are common. Several tenants appear on the screen at the same time.

“We are seeing 30 second virtual hearings,” said Lee R. Camp, lawyer for the tenants of Saint-Louis. “There is no semblance of justice going on.”

Camp observed more than 50 eviction hearings remotely during the pandemic. He does not believe they are constitutional.

In a brief to the Missouri High Court, he wrote: “Remote eviction hearings present insurmountable technological and financial hurdles that prevent tenants from having a full and fair opportunity to be heard, in violation of their due process rights. “

He said a tenant, Eddie Logan, an Army veteran, was unable to present evidence in his defense because Missouri courts’ e-filing procedures only allow attorneys to file documents online. Logan made repeated trips to the courthouse to present his documents, but he was fired each time, according to Camp. He also tried to send his documents by certified mail, but the documents did not reach the court on time and a deportation order was issued against him.

Camp appealed the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court, where the trial court judge overturned the decision.

Few other tenants benefit from such a result, Camp said.

“It was an incredible amount of legal work over two weeks at all levels of the courts to get relief for a tenant,” he said. “Of course, working on this case, 90% of the tenants who were on eviction records during those two weeks would not have had the same legal assistance.”

There is no semblance of justice.

Before the pandemic, the eviction system was filled with problems for tenants and tilted in favor of landlords, Benfer said. For example, only 10% of tenants threatened with eviction have legal representation, compared to 90% of owners.

“The introduction of remote hearings has resulted in disconnections and access issues, prolonged mute, difficulty in presenting evidence or sharing evidence with the wrong participant, bias against parties who are not. unable to participate fully, privacy breaches and reduced access to lawyers, ”Benfer said.

More … than 20 million Americans do not have internet access. Yet a poor or no connection can cost people their homes in a virtual audience.

“In the remote context, the inability to maintain a connection, the loss of minutes on a cell phone or the lack of technology could all be interpreted as a lack of appearance and result in a deportation order,” said Benfer.

Emily benfer

Source: Emily Benfer

The pandemic has made virtual evictions necessary, said Greg brown, senior vice president of government affairs at the National Apartment Association, a homeowner’s business group.

“Given the health risks associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, moving legal proceedings to digital format – including eviction cases – helps to ensure the safety of all parties and assures housing providers rental and tenants access to the courts, as guaranteed by the United States. Constitution.”

However, it is hypocritical to use safety as the reasoning for these hearings when the evictions themselves have been proven to cause a spike in coronavirus cases and deaths, said Daniel Rose, an organizer of Housing Justice Now in Winston-Salem.

“Officials don’t want to risk sick tenants and courthouse epidemics,” Rose said. “Still, they are prepared to go ahead with these life-threatening eviction proceedings on some shoddy teleconferencing software.”

Marks’ remote eviction hearing lasted about 10 minutes.

John fonda, the lawyer representing the owner Marks hires, SWMR Real Estate Holdings, appeared on screen in a navy suit and tie.

Fonda said Judge George Cleland, adorned in a black robe with framed accomplishments on his walls, that the CDC’s ban did not apply to Marks because he was not evicted for non-payment but because his lease had expired.

He also accused Marks of lying about the CDC’s statement, including stating that he was unable to pay his rent of $ 800.

Repelled marks.

“I qualified for everything,” he told the judge. (CNBC watched the hearing.) “I’m just trying to respect our rights.” Marks explained that he had applied for and been approved for rental aid from a local organization called the HOPE program, which could cover his arrears.

“The owner did not accept Hope funding,” Fonda said. “We want possession of the property.”

“OK,” Cleland said.

“I would like to push for the continuation so that I can hire a lawyer,” Marks said.

“I’m afraid the train left the station about this,” Cleland said. “I called the case and heard the case.”

Marks tried to read the terms of the eviction ban, but Cleland asked the clerk to mute it.

“I had heard enough about it,” Cleland said.

Julie Johnson, an assistant in the North Carolina Forensic Branch, said she emailed a list of questions from a CNBC reporter to the appropriate person in the office, but never responded .

Responding to a request for comment, Fonda acknowledged that he had initially decided to evict Marks for non-payment, but said SWMR Real Estate Holdings was able to modify its complaint when Marks’ lease expired at the end of the period. month of January. He also expressed his skepticism that Marks could not pay his rent.

The owners of SWMR Real Estate Holdings had also previously employed Marks in a retail store they owned. Fonda said the owners offered Marks the chance to come back to work, but he refused.

“In response to the return to work request, he sent text messages to his employer / landlord which were at the basis of SWMR’s opinion that he was not short of funds,” Fonda wrote in an e- mail.

It took four years of memories.

“If Mr. Marks didn’t want to pay rent and didn’t want to be an employee, the store had another current employee who wanted [to] reside in this house. “

Marks said he wouldn’t have worked or earned enough at the store to risk getting Covid and bringing him back to his family. He and his wife are unemployed. And Marks said the housing assistance he was approved for, had his landlord accepted it, would have liquidated his debt.

“We were there for non-payment of rent, and we were supposed to be protected,” he said.

Now Marks and his family are bouncing around in different hotels and motels (their family is in Texas and South Dakota). They look for the lowest rates on Booking.com, and have stayed in so many places in the past two months that they often get discounts. He wants to find a job, but it is difficult in a climate of uncertainty.

As stressful as their life has become, it’s the eviction he thinks about the most at night, when he can’t fall asleep.

Tyler Marks had to give away his children’s hamster, Groot, after being kicked out in a virtual hearing.

He had to donate or sell most of their furniture in their home, as well as bikes, guitars, children’s toys and their hamster, Groot. “Four years of memories had to be left behind,” he said.

And he always feels anxious when he remembers his virtual hearing.

“It’s like someone has a thumbs up on your life,” he says. “And they can destroy it in a second.”


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