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WA Supreme Court rules against program used to evict tenants without court order

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(The Center Square) – The Washington State Supreme Court ruled against a program in Sunnyside on Thursday that allowed law enforcement to unlawfully evict dozens of tenants, making many of them homeless.

The decision reaffirmed Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s authority to ensure local ordinances comply with state and federal law, specifically, in this case, the federal Fair Housing Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination. The AG’s lawsuit claims the evictions violated both.

Sunnyside’s Crime-Free Rental Housing Program started in 2010 to reduce criminal activity throughout the city. The program requires any inquiring tenant to complete a background check before entering a lease.

However, despite Sunnyside noting the provision on its Special Programs webpage, the city’s municipal code never mentions any required background checks. Instead, it notes that any violation of state or federal law, including improper storage of ammonia, constitutes an eviction without a court order.

“One of my office’s core functions is to defend the civil and constitutional rights of residents,” Ferguson said in a press release. “In this case, Washingtonians were unlawfully removed from their homes, separated from their families and rendered homeless. My office will protect Washingtonians from harmful and illegal discrimination.”

According to the release, the Sunnyside Police Department enforced the program at least 123 times, ultimately resulting in the unlawful evictions of 43 residents. The AG’s Office maintained that most were of Hispanic descent, women or families, including children.

Ferguson did not say exactly how many were Latinx, but according to the 2020 U.S. Census, Sunnyside’s population is about 86% of Latinx descent. Additionally, 72.4% of its households speak Spanish at home.

The AG’s Office won almost all of its claims in Ferguson’s 2020 complaint, except for Sunnyside’s violation of the Residential-Landlord Tenant Act; the Supreme Court instead upheld the lower court’s ruling that dismissed that claim.

Among the tenants that the court ruled were unlawfully evicted is a pregnant mother of three who was booted after a fight broke out in the parking lot of her building. According to the release, she had lived there for seven years before the incident and never was charged.

Another mother, grandmother and seven children were also forced from their place after the landlord accused them of stealing; however, the mother attributed the accusations to her repeated refusal of the landlord’s sexual advances, according to the release.

A couple was also forced from another property after police knocked on their door with a search warrant. Again, despite the lack of any criminal charges or proceedings, they were evicted, except in this case, law enforcement ordered the couple to leave town by midnight, according to the release.

In each of these cases, the families were homeless or, at least in the case of the pregnant mother, without stable housing for more than a year. According to the release, the mother, grandmother and seven children were split during that period.

Thursday’s decision sent Ferguson’s case back to the Yakima County Superior Court, which had previously thrown out the case against Sunnyside.

“The state has an interest in protecting the health, safety, and well-being of its residents,” the Supreme Court stated, “including holding government actors accountable against allegations of discrimination and violations of constitutional rights.”

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