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Bills would criminalize non-payment rent scofflaws, collect rent - KTVQ.com | Q2 | Continuous News Coverage | Billings, MT

Bills would criminalize non-payment rent scofflaws, collect rent judgments for landlords

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Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings

Student groups and an attorney who represents the poor stood up Tuesday to oppose a pair of bills to crack down on tenants who don’t pay their rent – including one to make non-payment of rent a crime.

“You could be sent to jail if you’re a tenant and you move out and don’t pay any portion of your rent,” said Amy Hall, a lawyer for the Montana Legal Services Corp. “Do we want to return to the day of debtors’ prison?”

But Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, the sponsor of the bills, said landlords are sometimes left holding the bag when tenants skip out, with no realistic way to collect what is owed.

Webb, a landlord himself, said his bills would work together to help “level the playing field” between landlord and tenant in Montana.

“I can get a judgment (from court for non-payment),” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “That judgment is worth just about as much as the paper it’s written on. …

“The individuals leave town. They change their name. They tend to disappear. … You can beat your head against the wall so long, it hurts.”

Webb’s Senate Bill 239, if passed, says a tenant who abandons a property without notice while still owing past rent or rent for the remainder of the lease can be charged with theft.

He also is sponsoring SB255, which says if a landlord sues a tenant for non-payment and wins in court, the landlord can ask the court to collect the money.

Webb said collecting such judgments is costly and difficult for landlords, and that having a court do the job increases the chance of getting the money.

“It actually puts real teeth in it, because all of a sudden an individual is accountable,” he said. “All we’re doing is saying, `Hey – now we want to figure out a way to make the judgment work.”

But Hall, representatives of several college-student groups and the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana opposed one or both of the measures.

Andrew Bixler of the Montana Associated Students said making non-payment of rent a crime would strain an already over-burdened legal system.

He said his group also opposes Webb’s and other bills before the 2017 Legislature attempting to change portions of the 40-year-old Montana Landlord and Tenant Act, which Bixler said established a good balance of power between renters and landlords.

“These bills threaten to tear that balance and swing the pendulum the other way,” he said. “It’s a bill that’s written by landlords, brought by landlords for the benefit of landlords.”

Hall said the United States abolished debtors’ prisons 200 years ago, and that nowhere in the country can one be jailed for failing to pay a civil debt.

She said landlords already have remedies to collect unpaid rent, such as garnishing a person’s wages or seizing their property.

“They have the same remedies as other creditors,” Hall said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bills.

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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