Recently, Chicago sheriff Thomas J. Dart has refused to evict people until the mortgage companies determine who is actually residing in a property. This decision was made in response to finding out that some of the people being evicted are renters and not property owners. On his view, a renter who has fulfilled his/her obligations should not be evicted.
Not surprisingly, the mortgage companies have a different take on the matter.
The Illinois Bankers Association’s official view is that Dart “was elected to uphold the law and to fulfill the legal duties of his office, which include serving eviction notices.”
It was also added that “The reality is that by ignoring the law and his legal responsibilities, he is carrying out ‘vigilantism’ at the highest level of an elected official. The Illinois banking industry is working hard to help troubled homeowners in many ways, but Sheriff Dart’s declaration of ‘martial law’ should not be tolerated.”
From a legal standpoint, Dart seems to be right in requiring that the mortgage companies identify the resident of the building before issuing an eviction notice. If the mortgage companies are unwilling to take that required step, then it would seem that the eviction notice would not be valid. Of course, this is a matter of the law and will probably have to be sorted out by a judge.
From a critical thinking standpoint, the Association was engaged in hyperbole and making a straw man out of Dart’s actual position. They also seem to have a poor grasp of what the words “vigilantism” and “martial law” mean. While Dart could be accused of failing to carry out evictions, he hardly seems to be acting as a vigilante. Unless, of course, one takes a vigilante to be a person who expects the full due process to be followed before making an eviction. He can hardly be regarded as imposing martial law in the usual sense of the term. After all, he is not a soldier and hence cannot, strictly speaking, impose martial law. Of course, if he had armed deputies imposing his will on people, then it might be reasonable to apply the term in a rather loose manner. However, he is simply refusing to carry out evictions that have not been properly prepared. As such, the Association should have presented a better statement.
From a moral standpoint, Dart is in the right. While he has a duty to uphold the law, he has a duty to make sure that the law is properly followed. As such, expecting the mortgage companies to properly identify the inhabitants is the right thing to do. Further, he also has a moral duty to do what is right. Evicting people who have fulfilled their obligations as tennants is morally unacceptable. After all, they have done what is required of them and are being harmed because of the failure of someone else to fulfill their financial obligation. Evicting such people is, in effect, to punish one person for the failure of another. This hardly seems just. While a sheriff has a duty to uphold the law, he also has a greater duty to what is right. As Thoreau argued, one should follow one’s conscience (I’ll add that a person should make sure her conscience is a good one) and disobey unjust laws. Obedience to the law is no excuse for doing miseeds and, as Locke argued, the law needs to serve the good of the people. Throwing innocent renters onto the streets does not do this. If the law allows this, the law must be changed.
From a practical standpoint, the Association is making a poor decision. First, they are further tarnishing their reputation. Mortgage companies are not very popular now and their statements seem calculated to infuriate people even more. That is hardly wise. Second, by evicting renters from a house, they are also evicting a source of revenue. An empty house will not generate any income for the banks and if they plan to rent them out, they should stick with the people who are already there. That makes it easier on everyone. The banks might prefer to just sell the houses, but they need to consider the obvious: who is going to buy them with the economy in the dumpster and the current credit situation. Empty houses also tend to become victim to vandalism and are not maintained. Hence, their value will tend to start to drop. It makes far more sense for the banks to reclaim the properties and continue to rent them-or at least make a transition in a way that does not involve being so wicked. The Association could have earned some good press by handling this situation better. But, it seems that the mortgage companies simply cannot help being the way they are.