WILKES-BARRE, Pa. - The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of landlords and tenants whose rental properties were seized by the city of Wilkes-Barre under an ordinance that authorizes city officials to evict tenants immediately and prevent landlords from renting a property for six months if anyone is suspected of illegal activity involving drugs or guns on the premises, including third parties not on the lease. The so-called “one-strike” ordinance allows the city to close rental properties even if the affected landlord and tenants were unaware of the suspected activity. 

Since the ordinance was enacted on September 1, 2013, Wilkes-Barre has used it to shut down more than 25 rental units. Mayor Thomas Leighton announced the city’s first action under the ordinance, the closure of plaintiff Adam Peters’ rental unit, with a press conference in front of Peters’ property on September 13, 2013. The closure occurred just hours after police arrested the tenant’s boyfriend at the property for drug-related offenses. Although Peters had vetted his tenant and had no knowledge of the alleged drug activity, the city revoked his rental license and prohibited all use of his property for six months.

"I did my due diligence as the property owner in finding tenants and keeping the property up to code, yet I have been penalized for the actions of others. It's just not right," said Peters.

Wilkes-Barre also shut down the rental unit where plaintiff Elizabeth Mattern lived with her four-year-old daughter after police arrested the daughter’s father at the property on an outstanding warrant and found a small amount of drugs on his person. Although the man did not live in the rental unit, the city immediately evicted Mattern and her daughter from their home. When Mattern arrived home from work, she found a closure notice on her door. Several minutes later, three police officers showed up and told her she had ten minutes to get her belongings and leave.  When she was unable to collect her belongings that quickly, police arrested her and took her to jail.  She was released several hours later without any charges.

The other tenant plaintiff, Tina Hall, was evicted in a similar fashion after a gun, which belonged to an adult son who did not live with her, was found in her home.  The properties belonging to the other two landlord plaintiffs were shut down for six months after police arrested the tenants for illegal drug or gun activity even though neither landlord had any knowledge of the alleged illegal activity.

The “one-strike” ordinance permits city of Wilkes-Barre code enforcement officers to close a rental unit for six months if police suspect illegal drug or gun-related criminal activity in the rental unit, common areas or on the premises. There is no requirement that landlords have any knowledge of the illegal activity or any opportunity to stop it before the unit is closed.

Although the ordinance provides for a post-closure appeals process, the city of Wilkes-Barre has repeatedly failed to notify property owners of their appeal rights, and when owners do appeal, the city often issues decisions shortly before, or even after, the six-month closure period has ended.

“The seizure of landlords’ rental units and eviction of tenants from their homes without any prior notice or opportunity to challenge the seizure violates core constitutional requirements of due process,” said Reggie Shuford, ACLU-PA executive director.  “Penalizing landlords and tenants for activity that they had no knowledge of or ability to prevent is unfair and unconstitutional.”

Today’s lawsuit,Peters v. City of Wilkes-Barre, was filed in federal district court in Wilkes-Barre.  The lawsuit asks the court to enjoin the ordinance and seeks damages on behalf of the landlord and tenant plaintiffs for violation of their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure of their property, their Eighth Amendment right to be free from excessive fines, and their Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process.

The plaintiffs are represented by Witold Walczak, Sara Rose, and Scott Kelly of the ACLU-PA and David Fine and other lawyers from the Harrisburg office of K&L Gates.

More about the case, including a copy of the complaint, can be found at: www.aclupa.org/peters