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A Wisconsin woman may face two months in prison for contempt of court after not spending her stimulus payment on rent or handing over her debit card to her landlord’s lawyer, according to a new report.
Cassandra Beatty, 22, has been wrestling an eviction for several months, the Wisconsin Examiner reported, without legal representation. Housing law experts say that the Oneida County court ruling by Judge Patrick O’Melia was unlikely to be legal, dubbing the judge’s actions a “debtors’ prison.”
Beatty, a single mother, was originally living with her then-boyfriend and two-year-old son in a $755 per month apartment at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Beatty and her boyfriend later split, causing her to fall behind on rent payments. She thought, however, she was protected by the eviction moratorium implemented during the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium, according to Kristin Slonski, one of Beatty’s lawyers, features unclear text that orders tenants to “pay as much as they can.” Slonski told the Examiner that since Beatty didn’t have efficient legal representation who would have helped her determine how much she can pay based on her own finances, O’Melia stood behind the landlord’s demands.
“Everybody has been proceeding as if the tenant is the one to make that decision,” Slonski told the publication. “Where does partial rent fall on my list of priorities between keeping my car running, cell phone going and kids fed, all those other expenses? At the end of the day, you’ve got 20 bucks left and you have to decide to give that 20 bucks to your landlord, who has already filed an eviction action against you—or spend it on your cell phone as you’re looking for a new job.”
In August 2020, Penkert Properties, Beatty’s landlord, had filed an eviction, but she then filed a notice that she was covered under the CDC’s moratorium. The landlord, however, shot back and took her to court, arguing that she had lied about the information included in the affidavit since she had some funds that could have been used to pay rent.
When Beatty went back to court, O’Melia ordered her not to use her stimulus payment or any potential income tax refunds. But when she received the direct payment, Beatty told the publication that she spent it on “necessities” and “to live.”
“It’s not like I went out and got a new TV,” Beatty added.
Last month, Beatty returned to court after spending the stimulus money, and O’Melia then found her in contempt. Beatty would face sixty days in prison if she didn’t give the landlord’s lawyer her debit card, an order that Slonski thought was unusual, as the lawyer didn’t know Beatty’s PIN for her card.
Beatty didn’t follow the order or appeal it in time, prompting O’Melia to find her in contempt again and insisted she pay the landlord $500.
If Beatty doesn’t pay, then she will be sent to jail for sixty days. She also owes almost $10,000 from court costs and accumulated rent.
Beatty and her son now live with her mom while Slonski and other lawyers find methods to appeal the most recent order.
“I’m afraid that what we’re going to find out after we’ve done all the legal analysis [is that] legally speaking she’s at a dead end and now she’s facing this really, what I think is an unfair use of the court system,” Slonski said. “Judgments go against poor people all the time, but when they can’t pay them we can’t put them in jail. We don’t have debtors’ prisons anymore. The only exception is when they fail to pay a contempt of court sanction. She really does face jail time if she can’t scratch together this money.”
Rachel Bucchino is a reporter at the National Interest. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report and The Hill. This article first appeared earlier this year.