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Az governor orders evictions delayed due to CV-19 outbreak

Arizona renters undergoing hardships because of the coronavirus outbreak can't be evicted — at least not immediately, Gov. Doug Ducey ordered Tuesday. The governor ordered evictions be delayed for at least 120 days.

Renters will still owe payments during that period, but cannot be evicted from their homes, Ducey ordered.

"Nobody should be forced out of their home because of COVID-19," said Ducey. "This order is about protecting public health and providing relief to families impacted by this virus — whether through sickness or economic hardship. This is the right thing to do to support Arizona families during their time of need and prevent the spread of COVID-19."

The Republican governor ordered all Arizona law enforcement officers and court constables to "temporarily delay enforcement of eviction action orders for residential premises" over coronavirus concerns.

Some Pima County constables who had already declared they would halt evictions of their own accord welcomed the order, saying they will "immediately comply."

The order covers renters who:

  • Are quarantined, whether because they are diagnosed or being isolated because another resident in the home is quarantined, or
  • Have a health condition that, according to the CDC, makes them more at risk for COVID-19 than the average person, or
  • Have suffered a loss of income, including: job loss, lowered wages, layoff due to business closure, responsibility to take care of home-bound school-age children, or "other pertinent circumstances."

Renters seeking relief shall notify the owner or landlord of their property in writing with any supporting documentation, and acknowledge that the lease remains in effect, Ducey said.

About 40 percent of Pima County housing units are rented.

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A week ago, President Trump ordered his administration to suspend all HUD-related foreclosures and evictions through April. The city of Tucson has halted evictions in all city-run public housing, under an order from Mayor Regina Romero.

Pima County constables had pushed for a delay in evictions. Last week, they unanimously declared that they would not serve eviction notices, citing public health concerns and noting that they may be vectors for spreading CV-19 in closely contacting so many members of the public.

Ducey's authority extends only to ordering constables to not evict people from their homes. It does not delay any court proceedings or forestall judges from issuing eviction orders — only that only emergency evictions should actually be served on residents who do not have hardships.

But local courts have taken their own steps to push off evictions.

The chief administrative justice of the peace of Pima County Consolidated Justice Courts, Judge Charlene Pesquiera, on last Thursday said that the court would delay all eviction hearings for at least a month, but Judge Vince Roberts refused to go along with that determination, ordering court staff to schedule eviction hearings for Wednesday morning.

Court sources said about 11 "emergency" evictions were set to be heard by judges this week.

Those evictions — for "material breach" of a lease, which can include such matters as falsely telling a landlord the number of people living in a home, whether there are pets, and having an undisclosed criminal record — may still proceed under Ducey's order.

"I’m relieved that the governor issued his executive order to halt eviction enforcement for folks affected by COVID either financially or medically," said Constable Kristen Randall, a Democrat in Justice Precinct 8 in Midtown, on Tuesday afternoon. "It indicates he understands the pandemic is going to affect Arizonans on multiple fronts and is willing to join other states in addressing this crisis proactively."

"We will immediately comply with his order," she said.

The lobbying group representing apartment owners called for "caution" in a press release responding to Ducey's declaration.

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"No one wants to see sick or vulnerable individuals or families evicted in the midst of dealing with a serious health crisis," said Courtney Gilstrap LeVinus, president of the Arizona Multihousing Association. "We support taking immediate action to protect and support struggling residents during the COVID-19 crisis, but we also want to offer a note of caution here."

"At the same time as many apartment residents are struggling with income loss, Arizona property owners also are tightening their belts in a huge way. These businesses are working hard to meet their monthly obligations: make payroll, pay bank loans and mortgages, and pay their utilities, insurance costs and tax obligations," LeVinus wrote. "We will continue to work with Gov. Ducey and state and federal leaders to find a comprehensive solution that addresses all the many impacts of this crisis – a solution that balances relief for renters with relief for property owners."

"I am genuinely relieved by Ducey's order," said another constable, Joe Ferguson in JP 9, on the near West and far South sides. "The last thing we needed was to throw families — especially children — out on the streets."

"I hope that the governor and the Legislature can find common ground to help families pay down their back rent while the economy recovers," Ferguson said.

Randall was one of the leaders of the move for each of the county's 10 constables law enforcement officers who serve court orders, including evictions and orders of protection — issued a letter saying they "will not be conducting evictions until we have received adequate guidance from the Pima County Health Department and the Arizona Supreme Court" over how to proceed during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The asked the state Supreme Court to "take immediate action to halt all eviction proceedings until a state-wide set of protocols can be established to ensure the public's safety."

"We feel the gravity of this epidemic calls for immediate action to minimize infections in our state," the constables wrote in a letter provided to TucsonSentinel.com.

They said they "lack the training and the ability to procure minimum protective equipment necessary to reduce transmission from one household to another."

Randall said that all of the constables will continue to serve all other criminal papers, including small claims notices, orders of protection and injunctions against harassment.

"It's really important that people know they can still get those orders," she told TucsonSentinel.com last Wednesday.

The difference between serving an order of protection and carrying out an eviction is significant, Randall said.

"With an order, I can just tear off a piece of paper and hand it to them, sometimes through a door," she said. "With an eviction, we have to clear those homes or apartments. We're going through closets and looking in cupboards to make sure there's nobody hiding inside. Sometimes we find them; we have to make sure the premises are totally vacant."

"With an order of protection, I can give them the rundown while making sure there's enough distance between us," she said.

"We don't have any decontamination protocols. Our office has had hand sanitizer on order for the past three weeks; we can't order it," she said.

The Constable's Office has been handling 120-130 evictions each week, Randall said last week.

"I did 30 last week, about 30 the week before," she estimated.

"And we're going from house to house to house, with no decontamination protocol between each one," Randall said. "Routinely I'm dealing with the elderly and disabled, people with children — some of the most vulnerable people in our community" when it comes to illness.

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"I don't want to be a vector. I worry about my own personal health, and my family, and the people that we're dealing with," she said. "We have to enter the home with evictions."

The letter was signed by Presiding Constable Bennett Bernal, of Justice Precinct 6, joined by Associate Presiding Constable Randall, JP 8, and constables John Rademaker, JP 1; Esther Gonzalez, JP 2; Jose Gonzalez, JP 3; Oscar Vasquez, JP 4; Marge Cummings, JP 5; Thomas Schenek, JP 7; Joe Ferguson, JP 9; and Michael Stevenson, JP 10.

Randell pointed to the state "Constables Policies and Procedures Manual," which states that when dealing with an eviction, "The constable may elect to not remove the occupants immediately for good cause (e.g. minors are the only occupant(s), a person's health would be jeopardized by their immediate removal or any other extenuating circumstance.) In these cases, the party may be given more time to make arrangements."

Roberts still called for evictions on his docket

Last Thursday, all possible criminal and civil cases in Pima County Consolidated Justice Courts were ordered to be delayed for at least a month, including criminal misdemeanors and eviction cases. But one justice of the peace was refusing to go along with the plan.

The move followed a discussion among the justices of the peace at the court in Downtown Tucson, but not the JP courts in Green Valley or Ajo. Five of the eight judges agreed, with two opposed, and JP Charlene Pesquiera, the chief administrative justice of the peace, instituted the move Thursday morning.

One of the lower court judges, JP Vince Roberts, the associate presiding justice of the peace, wasn't inclined to agree with Pesquiera's determination.

Starting Friday, the court calendar was ordered cleared for 30 days, "excluding only those cases that we have not been given authority to reset," Pesquiera wrote in an internal email.

"This will include arraignments and evictions," Pesquiera told the other judges. "Further I am directing that all fine payments be made online or by telephone and that a secure drop box be placed on the first floor lobby for filings."

"I believe that these measures will go far in reducing the foot traffic in our building," she wrote. "It would be irresponsible not to adopt these measures. Many of our employees are fearful of exposure and some have children. We should do all that we can to ensure their protection."

Roberts responded to an email chain that began with Pequiera's order by telling Lisa Royal, the administrator of the courts, that "any evictions which are currently calendared and assigned to me are not to be reset and are to be placed onto my calendar next week."

Roberts did not answer his phone when TucsonSentinel.com attempted to contact him for comment.

"For future filings assigned to me during your proposed reset period of 30 days please schedule them on my court calendar for Wednesday mornings beginning at 9 a.m. with 10 per hour," he told Royal.

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One of the constables who pushed to put evictions on hold is the newly appointed Constable Ferguson. He reacted angrily to Roberts' position.

With Roberts backchanneling the message that constables could face legal consequences for the temporary halt, Ferguson said in a Facebook post over the weekend that "Today I was threatened with legal action for my decision to delay evictions in Justice Precinct 9."

"I am unmoved," he wrote.

"I've been threatened and bullied for most of my life, and my response today is no different. I am not going change my mind," he wrote, in a post linking to a TucsonSentinel.com report on the issue.

"Judge Vince Roberts is defying the best advice from health experts to minimize court hearings and court actions and is demanding to schedule evictions starting next week. I buoyed by the arguments made by Judges Wilson, Carroll, Aboud, Pesquiera, Taylor and others in the Pima County Justice Court. I will continue to delay evictions in JP9 until I am given clear guidance from the county attorney and the health department," he said.

"I won't speak for them, but other constables are going to continue to delay evictions for the same reasons — the health and welfare of our entire community," wrote Ferguson, a former reporter for the Arizona Daily Star.

Green Valley also delaying most hearings

While he didn't participate in the discussions to close the courts in Tucson, Judge Ray Carroll, of the Justice Court in Green Valley, said his courtroom will also be essentially closed.

"We'll be operating without any walk-in traffic," he told TucsonSentinel.com. "The front doors are going to be locked, and we've reset all hearings until April."

Carroll said he's "not hearing any evictions" during the pandemic crisis.

"I'm not going to do a writ (to evict someone) until we make sure the virus is well away," he said. "We're not going to put someone who should be in quarantine because they're sick out on the streets or in a homeless shelter."

Judge John Peck, of Ajo Justice Court, said that he's continuing to hold limited hearings and setting new cases to be heard by phone, and only allowing litigants, attorneys and witnesses into the courtroom. Peck said that he's instituting strict handwashing requirements for in-person matters.

"These will not be the last of the challenges to expect as we move forward together in this changing climate," said Judge Peck in a news release about the changes. "We may be uneasy, sometimes less-than-comfortable and inconvenienced as we change patterns. But we can always be compassionate and supportive – traits we have in abundance in Ajo, as we all know and have experienced."

Court still accepting filings, issuing protection orders

"We are currently required to remain open and accept filings," Pesquiera said, but the state's chief justice has given lower courts the flexibility to delay proceedings and suspend timelines.

"Judge (Kyle) Bryson (of Pima County Superior Court) affirmed in his email to us yesterday regarding eviction hearings since Rule 6 of the rules of civil procedure was suspended," she said.

The justice courts will still issue orders of protection and injunctions against harassment, court Administrator Lisa Royal confirmed in a phone call last Thursday.

Other courts limiting access, closing

"I made attempts to see what other courts are doing," Pesquiera said. " I conferred with Judge Riojas from City Court and we are both in agreement of these protocols for our courts. Maricopa County Justice Courts are following the same suit. Superior Court is also taking measures to reduce visitors to its courthouse to prevent the spread of the virus and to comply with CDC guidelines."

Judges Vince Roberts and Susan Bacal dissented from the decision during the discussion among the judges.

In an exchange of emails over the past week, Bacal indicated several times that she would prefer to keep her courtroom operating.

"Again, I will comply with all orders given and my biggest concern will be the health and well being of all. Staff is still required to come to work. I will too," she said Thursday.

"Close shop," Judge Paula Aboud said simply.

Much of the discussion between the justices of the peace was about logistical matters, but evictions were also repeatedly brought up, especially after last Wednesday's announcement by the constables.

"These are purely civil matters... the health and safety danger to our community which exists due to the pandemic outweighs the concerns and issues present in purely civil matters," Judge Douglas Taylor said.

"There is also a public health concern if we rule on eviction for someone who is quarantined because of possible exposure to the virus," Judge Kendrick Wilson wrote to his colleagues. "If we order them out on the street, we are complicit in serious danger to every other person the evicted person comes into contact with on the street."

The justice courts, each with an elected justice of the peace, handle a variety of cases, including evictions, small claims suits, misdemeanor criminal cases including some DUIs, civil traffic offenses, and protective orders.

While the shutdown will run for at least a month, cases will still be filed and handled later, including criminal prosecutions.

During the closure, the fee usually charged for paying fines online will be waived, Royal said.

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courtesy Constable Kristen Randall

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