Housing attorney says 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation exposes 'troubling' evictions

November 21, 2018 10:22 PM

An attorney who fights to keep low-income tenants from being evicted said a 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation has exposed a "troubling" trend in St. Louis Park in which police order landlords to force people from their homes.

Police in the west-metro suburb have directed landlords to evict 227 tenants since 2013 for violating the city's crime-free/drug-free ordinance.

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However, city and court records obtained and analyzed by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS show 155 of those tenants - two out of three - were never convicted or even charged with a crime.

RELATED: Evicted before convicted: St. Louis Park police order landlords to force people from their homes

"The fact that in your analysis, you didn't find that crimes were ever charged, that's striking," Luke Grundman, managing attorney for the housing unit at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, said in an interview.

Grundman said cities adopted such ordinances to address problem properties and continuous drug issues, but believes the ordinance in St. Louis Park needs to change since it gives police the authority to mandate eviction.

"I think the way it's being used, as your numbers show, is in a much, much broader way that's really looping in a lot of people who are not problem properties," Grundman said.

In these cases, Grundman argues that eviction is the "wrong tool" to use because families suffer the consequences.

"These are human beings, these are families living in these homes," Grundman said. "Given those numbers, we're saying that society doesn't care enough to do any type of criminal sanction against the person… and yet we care about it enough that the whole family that's connected with that person should be evicted from their home."

In 2016, Cristian Ceja's family was evicted from the Courtyard apartments after he was stopped by police in the complex's parking lot in a car that smelled of burnt marijuana, according to police records.

The driver of the car was cited for a petty misdemeanor amount of marijuana, but Ceja was not.

"I wasn't prosecuted, I didn't even have to go to court," he said.

Three weeks later, police ordered Ceja's landlord to evict the family, explaining that Ceja had violated the crime-free/drug-free ordinance.

"It was just, you're getting evicted and there's nothing you can do about it," Ceja said.

St. Louis Park city manager Tom Harmening said cases like this are "by far the exception and not the rule" in the 10 years the ordinance has been in place.

But the investigation found police have ordered landlords to evict 90 tenants over the last five years for possessing a small amount of marijuana or paraphernalia, even though they were never cited for the petty misdemeanor.

Still, Harmening defended the city's enforcement of the ordinance.

"What we're looking for is making (sure) everybody who lives in that building has a safe place to live," he said.

Grundman questioned how evicting a family over activity not considered serious enough to warrant criminal charges creates a safer environment.

"It doesn't make any sense," he said. "I am hopeful….that this (investigation) will lead to some changes that will actually impact people in a positive way."

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