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Can you go to prison for not paying your rent?

My guess is you read the headline, chuckled and said to yourself “no way”. After all, the idea of sending people that could not pay their debts to prison went away over a century ago in the U.S., right? Yes and no….In 1833 the United States abolished Federal imprisonment for unpaid debts and most states did as well around the same time. However, Missouri Representative Gary L. Cross, representing the Kansas City area, has introduced legislation that would subject tenants that do not pay their rent to a criminal charge, a Class A Misdemeanor to be exact.

The bill (click here for the bill itself) states: “Whoever having obtained the tenancy of residential property he or she is entitled to occupy, intentionally absconds without paying all current and past rent due is guilty of a class A misdemeanor.” The bill does provide a couple of ways for the tenant to avoid being charged with a crime: “A person has a defense to prosecution under subsection 1 of this section if he or she has provided the landlord with a security deposit that equals or exceeds the amount that the person owes the landlord regarding rent and damage to property. or A person has a defense to prosecution under subsection 1 of this section if, within five days after the day he or she vacates the rental premises, he or she pays all current and past rent due or provides to the landlord, in writing, a complete and accurate forwarding address.”

The ironic thing is, as I read the bill, it strikes me that the bill actually encourages a delinquent tenant to retain possession of the property for as long as possible and not move out the tenant cannot be charged with a crime under the bill while they are in possession of the property. As a landlord I can tell you this runs contrary to what a landlord wants….when I’ve had tenants that were behind in their rent and could no longer pay, I’ve always been grateful when they voluntarily moved and gave me possession of the property versus making go through the cost and time of going to court and then doing an eviction.

Class A Misdemeanor – Join the club!

So what category does Representative Cross think that someone that is not able to pay their rent belong in? Well, here are a couple of other crimes that are classified as Class A Misdemeanors:

  • Fraud
  • Passing bad checks under $500.00
  • Fraudulent use of a credit card device with a value less than $150.00
  • 3rd Degree Assault

Do the crime and do the time

If this bill becomes law then tenants that are guilty under it would subject to:

  • a prison term not to exceed one year
  • a fine not to exceed $1,000.00

What’s next?

As if what I’ve written thus far is not scary enough, then think about what legislation like this could lead to and what may be next. Today it is tenants that can’t pay rent, tomorrow it could be people that cannot pay their mortgage and lose their homes to foreclosure, borrowers that can’t pay car payments, credit cards, etc….what if legislatures decide to make all these acts crimes? Sure seems like we will have a lot of criminals in the state…

No response..

I did contact Representative Cross by email early this morning and offered him the opportunity to address the concerns I have expressed as well as give his side of the story on why he feels this legislation is necessary and just however, as of the time I published this, I have not received a response. If I do receive a response from Representative Cross’ office I will update this post with the information. If anyone wishes to contact Representative Cross concerning this bill his phone number is 573-751-1459 and his email is Gary.Cross@house.mo.gov.

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