Samantha Conner, a 44-year-old mother of two and paralegal, fell behind on rent in 2019 after she struggled to maintain consistent employment following a mental health crisis. When her landlord and a county constable came to evict her, she didn’t know she wouldn’t be able to take anything with her. “Being 16 days late on rent didn’t warrant them taking everything that I own,” she said. Credit: Anna Wolfe / Mississippi Today

COLUMBUS — On a rainy morning in early 2019, two men entered Samantha Conner’s apartment while she lay in bed.

Chateaux Holly Hills Apartments property manager Kevin Casteel and Lowndes County Constable Sonny Sanders were armed with a county-issued gun, a removal warrant and a ruthless interpretation of Mississippi’s eviction law.

Conner, a 44-year-old mother of two, was 16 days late on rent. As punishment, Casteel intended to take everything she owned.

“You don’t understand,” she recalled him yelling as he prevented her from packing her belongings. “All of this is mine.”

Mississippi’s Landlord-Tenant Act, amended in 2018 and 2019, provides that as soon as a judge grants an eviction in court, the landlord may immediately assume ownership of all the tenant’s belongings located on the property, even a trailer home. An eviction is almost always ordered automatically if the tenant is even one day behind on rent and there is no guarantee of a grace period that would give them the time to move.

These are the harshest eviction statutes in the nation. No other states allow landlords to immediately seize tenant property the way Mississippi does, lawyers with the Mississippi Center for Justice told Mississippi Today.

“You’re leaving these people without the tools they need to survive on the street,” said Jon Jopling, housing campaign director and attorney at the Mississippi Center for Justice. “Like blankets and bedding and pillows and heavy clothes. It’s sort of a double whammy to put someone out and then not allow them to have access to the things that they need just to be warm.”

Conner is now suing Casteel, Sanders and the apartment complex owner James Brooks in hopes that a federal judge will find Mississippi’s Landlord-Tenant Act unconstitutional.

The law says: “If the judge grants possession of this premises to the landlord and you do not remove your personal property, including any manufactured home, from the premises before the date and time ordered by the judge, then the landlord may dispose of your personal property without any further legal action.”

The statute seems to refer to a scenario in which a property manager must dump personal possessions abandoned by a tenant, but in practice, Conner’s case shows, landlords have used the law to take what they want.

Conner said Casteel peered into her son’s room during the physical eviction and she believes “he was looking in there to see what he could sell.”

Desiree Hensley, director of the University of Mississippi School of Law Civil Legal Clinic, who is representing Conner in her lawsuit, argued that the men violated Conner’s fundamental property rights.

“Inevitably, the state of Mississippi will be required to spend scarce resources defending these clearly indefensible and clumsy enactments,” Mississippi Center for Justice attorney William Bedwell said in testimony to the state Senate Housing Committee in November.

Samantha Conner’s barren Columbus apartment and blank walls are a reminder of her 2019 eviction, during which her landlord prohibited her from taking any of her belongings, including her clothing, furniture and children’s baby pictures and birth certificates. Credit: Anna Wolfe / Mississippi Today

Lawmakers did not introduce or take up any legislation in the 2021 session to revise the statute with regards to immediate possession.

In an initial October order dismissing requests for summary judgements until more evidence is presented, U.S. District Judge Michael Mills said he would be more likely to rule in Conner’s favor if her attorneys can show that Mississippi’s laws are unusually harsh.

“This court’s initial inclination is thus to harbor doubts about the constitutionality of the Mississippi statutory scheme at issue in this case,” he wrote, “but it is possible that these doubts could be assuaged if defendants are able to cite similar statutes in other states which have been held constitutional.”

Evictions in Mississippi can play out several different ways, often sloppily with no one entity overseeing the process from start to finish. Conner’s landlord first sued her in January of 2019 for not paying that month’s rent.

Conner’s federal complaint explains that before the Feb. 6 hearing, she paid the previous month’s rent. But the judge went ahead and entered a $926 judgment against her for February’s rent. After the hearing, she said, Casteel agreed she could stay as long as she paid before the end of the month, a common arrangement.

Instead, Casteel exerted the power given to him by state law and used the judgment to secure a warrant of removal, one of the last steps in the eviction process. Conner said the county gave her no prior notice of the warrant. Then it was up to constable Sanders to supervise the physical removal and change of locks.

“The way it happens in real life is that this gets carried out by whichever constable goes to the unit that day,” Jopling said. “And constables come in all kinds of stripes all over the state of Mississippi.”

In the minutes leading up to Conner’s departure, Casteel followed her around the apartment, watching closely to see what she might try to take with her, she told Mississippi Today. He pulled her laptop out of her hands, she said, and demanded she drop an external hard drive that contained confidential documents related to her freelance paralegal work.

Casteel even ordered her not to take a tub of Vaseline from her bathroom, Conner said. She left the apartment, where she had lived since 2016, with little more than a change of clothes in a tote. She said Casteel wouldn’t permit her stand under the building’s awning, so she waited by the street, in the rain, for a ride from her friend.

She thought to herself: “Your son left for school this morning and he can’t even come home.”

Conner would never see the rest of her belongings — not the electronics she used to stay employed, her children’s birth certificates or baby photos, her college diplomas or the Playstation her teenage son bought himself with money he earned.

“It may sound harsh,” said Jack Hayes, the Columbus attorney representing Casteel and Brooks. “And it may be harsh, but they followed the letter of the law.”

After facing homelessness on and off, Conner secured a new place about six months after the eviction. More than a year-and-a-half later, the walls in Conner’s apartment are still bare. Decorating and settling in would just seem to put her at risk of losing it all again.

“I don’t feel like it’s a home. I feel like it’s a residence and it’s a place where I’m not homeless anymore, but I don’t feel at home,” Conner said. “They allowed Kevin to take that law and use it the way he did, which shows me I still really don’t have any protections.”

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.