Lawsuit raises question: Can communities outlaw poverty?

A rural Arkansas hamlet dominated by makers of toilet seats and adhesive labels finds itself in the middle of a national debate over criminalizing poverty.

At issue is an ordinance enacted in September by the city council of McCrory, Ark., that bans trailers valued at less than $7,500 from town.

Last week Equal Justice Under Law, a legal advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., filed a federal lawsuit in Little Rock, Ark., contending the ordinance is unconstitutional and targets the poor.

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The plaintiffs in the case, David Watlington and Lindsay Hollaway, were told by the McCrory police chief that they had to leave town because their trailer home did not meet the $7,500 threshold. The lawsuit says the couple’s small travel trailer is worth $1,500.

While no fines have yet been levied, the ordinance permits fines of between $50 and $500 a day.

Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Equal Justice, said: “What McCrory has done is the next logical step in criminalizing poverty.”

The mayor and police chief of McCrory had no immediate comment. One council member, Tom Kendrick, said he was unaware that a suit had been filed.

The lawsuit comes as the U.S. Department of Justice is mounting legal attacks against cities and towns across the country as officials try to cope with the consequences of poverty.

Since 2015, the Justice Department has intervened on the issue of homelessness and municipal laws that essentially ban sleeping in public or that expanded the definition of loitering to jail the poor.

In addition, the federal government and organizations like Equal Justice are taking aim at the criminal justice system’s use of money bail that leaves impoverished people locked up before their trials simply because they lack the resources of others arrested.

The Equal Justice lawsuit characterizes the McCrory law as a “Trailer Banishment Ordinance.” Specifically, the lawsuit contends, the ordinance violates the Constitution because it forces the couple out of their residence without due process and it discriminates against them because it shows no “rational connection to a legitimate government interest.”

McCrory, population 1,600, has seen its population decline every year since 2000. Nearly a third of McCrory’s residents never finished high school.

One of its main employers is Worldwide Label & Packaging, whose adhesive labels are used by some of the nation’s biggest companies. Another is Costoco, a Canadian firm that makes plastic toilet seats. The surrounding farms produce rice, corn and soybeans. And local commerce feeds nearby trucking and the Union Pacific rail line that stops in town.

Lindsay Hollaway does shift work at Worldwide, bringing in about $13,000 a year; David Watlington is unemployed, according to the lawsuit. The suit contends that the couple’s limited income has not kept them from paying the $100 a month rent on the land beneath their trailer, or from keeping their trailer home up to local zoning codes.

But that wasn’t enough.

On Dec. 7, Police Chief Paul Hatch met the couple and told them they had to leave the county “after the holidays” because their trailer did not comply with the new city ordinance.

Not long afterward, the pair contacted Equal Justice and asked for legal help. Beyond filing the lawsuit, the organization is asking a federal judge to make it a class action lawsuit and to halt enforcement of the ordinance.

“It is unconstitutional to criminalize a status, such as poverty. Indigent residents like plaintiffs cannot avoid a violation of the statute. Through no intent, will, or desire, plaintiffs only ‘crime’ is living in a home worth less than $7,500,” the suit says.

It was this very issue of poverty and law that caused the  U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in 2015 in a lawsuit involving Boise, Idaho.

In its filing, Justice Department lawyers cited statistics on homelessness – some 500,000 people nationwide are classified as homeless – and pointed to the federal government’s “broad interest in ensuring that justice is applied fairly, regardless of wealth or status.”