Federal judge finds Mississippi eviction law unconstitutional after ‘Kafkaesque nightmare’ removal

Published 5:28 pm Thursday, December 2, 2021

By Anna Wolfe

Mississippi Today

A federal judge has struck down the part of Mississippi’s eviction law that allows landlords to immediately seize the property of delinquent tenants, saying it has “unpredictable and absurd results.”

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In 2019, an apartment manager stood in front of Columbus paralegal Samantha Conner while he took nearly everything she owned — the electronics she used to stay employed, her children’s birth certificates and baby photos, her college diplomas and even the Playstation her teenage son bought himself with money he earned.

All over less than a thousand dollars in unpaid rent.

With the help of the University of Mississippi School of Law Civil Legal Clinic, Conner eventually sued the apartment owner, property manager and constable, asking the judge to examine the law and award her damages.

Conner told Mississippi Today she lost more than just belongings that day, which is why the latest ruling means so much to her.

“To know that I was the catalyst for getting this ridiculous law changed, that gives me back some of the power that I feel that I had lost,” she said Wednesday.

Facing a surprise removal warrant in early 2019, Conner tried to pack up whatever belongings she could after the property manager at her apartment and a county constable entered her apartment, ordering her to leave.

But apartment manager Kevin Casteel demanded she drop the items — her laptop she needs for freelance work, hard drives with client information on them and even a tub of Vaseline.

“Casteel and (Lowndes County Constable Sonny) Sanders followed her through the apartment like she was a criminal trying to steal her own property,” Conner’s attorney wrote.

Conner recounted what Casteel told Sanders during the removal: “Make her give it back. Make her give it back. She can’t keep it. Tell her she can’t keep that. Arrest her. Arrest her.”

Casteel later testified that he sold, donated or trashed Conner’s things.

U.S. District Judge Michael Mills said there’s just one way to look at what Casteel did: “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,” he wrote.

But state law apparently allowed him to do it.

Despite what Mills called “very vague and non-specific” arguments Mississippi Attorney General’s Office presented in the case in defense of the law, “This court concludes that the Mississippi statutes in question are, in fact, unconstitutional and must be so declared,” the Nov. 30 order reads.

The judge’s order includes a stay pending an appeal, giving the Legislature the opportunity to revise the statute in its 2022 session. Michelle Williams, chief of staff for Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, did not say whether the office planned to appeal. “We are reviewing the order and evaluating our next steps at this time,” she said in an email.

When contacted in February for an initial story about Conner’s case, Jack Hayes, the Columbus attorney representing Casteel and the apartment complex owner James Brooks, told Mississippi Today: “It may sound harsh. And it may be harsh, but they followed the letter of the law.”

Hayes told Mississippi Today on Thursday that the judge’s ruling has “put everyone in a tailspin.” He said he’s received calls from realtors and leasing agents who are concerned about how to handle evictions going forward. Hayes also said that it’s rare for a case like this to result in a judge finding state law unconstitutional, and it’s never happened in a case of his. But it’s the attorney general’s office, not Hayes, who is responsible for defending the law.

Hayes said that the latest ruling does not resolve Conner’s request for damages against his clients, whom he still argues never acted illegally. The parties could reach a settlement before trial, otherwise a jury will decide what the defendants owe Conner.

On top of losing access to all her basic necessities, Conner has faced homelessness on and off since the eviction.

“I know what struggling is, and I know the feeling of being without a home and having a family and what that entails,” Conner said. “I’m glad that they’re finally recognizing how many lives this has wrecked, because you can’t rely on all the landlords to just be upstanding individuals and to use the law the way it was supposedly written.”