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Eviction notices may be homeless

Are sheriffs in Baltimore City required to post eviction notices on the individual apartment doors of tenants living in multi-unit buildings?

Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Public Justice Center, accuses the Baltimore City sheriff’s office of backing a bill to allow deputies to post eviction notices in common areas.

The answer is yes, according to the sheriff’s lawyer, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. That said, Curran ended the practice of posting the notice on front doors and in common areas — but triggered a verbal battle between a Baltimore public interest law firm and the sheriff’s department that may end up in court.The attorney general’s office issued its opinion Feb. 15, saying current statutes “require that the process server affix an attested copy of the summons conspicuously upon the property to be repossessed — this is, the individual apartment.”Four days later, HB 1335 was introduced in the General Assembly and would, if passed, negate the opinion by permitting deputy sheriffs to post eviction notices in “the common area entrance of the property.”“We’re very troubled because we had been negotiating in good faith with the sheriff’s office because it’s important that our clients get proper notice,” said Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Public Justice Center. “The sheriff’s department strung us along to thwart us in the legislature and to avoid getting this issue resolved.“I think the bill is bad public policy and unconstitutional — and we’ll fight it if it’s passed,” added Smith, who blamed the sheriff’s office and not the attorney general for introducing the bill to overturn the opinion. Maj. Marshall “Toby” Goodwin, a spokesman for Sheriff John W. Anderson, emphatically denied the accusation.“I don’t even know about the bill,” Goodwin said. “I’ve heard of it, but haven’t read it. I can’t tell you what’s happening. We’re the guys in the middle.”Goodwin said the department “will abide” with the attorney general’s opinion. If a deputy is unable to post the eviction notice on an individual door, it will be returned to rent court, where landlords sue tenants for failure to pay rent.“Public Justice is setting up for a crash of the tenant-landlord system,” Goodwin said. “If we don’t serve [the eviction notice], the landlord has to pay the [warrant] fee again.”That warrant fee is assessed against the tenant’s monthly rent. “A tenant could end up being charged up to $50 for being late with the rent,” Goodwin said.“I understand Public Justice’s frustration,” Goodwin added. “No one understands ours. The PJC needs to be considerate of all the parties involved.”Del. William H. Cole IV, D-Baltimore City, the sponsor of HB 1335, did not return a phone call seeking comment.To Smith, the bottom line is justice for poor tenants who clog Baltimore’s rent court, the city’s busiest docket with 180,000 cases a year. About half the city’s population lives in rental units.“What’s at stake is someone’s home,” Smith pointed out. “You can’t think of something more sacred. Justice ain’t cheap, but it’s so important. We have to do it right when talking about depriving someone of their home.”Smith said the sheriff’s department is also failing to adequately meet another legal requirement: the mailing of notices to tenants.“We feel strongly that posting is important because the sheriff does a terrible job in mailing the notices,” said Smith, who identified five cases of tenants being evicted without receiving a notice. “The mail is not getting through in thousands of cases. To weaken the requirement of posting creates a high risk that people will be evicted without notice of a case pending against them.”Samuel A. Polakoff, president of the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore, said he did not request HB 1335 and had not read it.“But my guess is we’ll support it,” Polakoff said. “I certainly sympathize with the sheriff’s department. It puts the landlords in a tight spot, too.” “For the sheriffs to do their job properly, they have to get inside the building,” Polakoff explained. “That may be easy where there is on-site management. But the city is the oldest jurisdiction in the state and most multi-unit buildings are without on-site management.”Susan B. H. Tannenbaum, a staff attorney at Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., said neither the sheriff’s department nor the landlords is saying what the proposed law means to tenants.“There can be no guarantee a tenant in a multi-family building will get an eviction notice if it’s posted on the main door,” said Tannenbaum, who runs BNI’s landlord-tenant program. “At least in Baltimore, there has been shown to be a problem getting the notices by first-class mail. So a posted notice may be the only way a tenant gets notified.“What happens if there are multiple doors to the building?” Tannenbaum asked. “Obviously, there’s a very real constitutional issue that needs to be addressed.”In November, the PJC negotiated an overhaul of rent court. Changes include the addition of another judge to hear cases, new procedures to make the process easier for tenants, and limiting the number of cases to 1,000 a day during the court’s busiest period each month.One sticking point not addressed in the deal was the sheriff’s department’s posting of notices on the outside doors and not on individual apartment doors.