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Big-City Sheriff Halts Evictions

My neighbor abandoned his condo...When dog bites man, it isn’t news. But when man bites dog, that’s news. Fresh examples of this old saying appear every day.

For instance, if you saw a headline that seemed to mean a sheriff was halting evictions, you would think it was a misprint, right? Evictions are what sheriffs do, sometimes backed up by whole squadrons of armed goons.

And, of course, homelessness follows evictions like night follows day. But let’s pause for a short digression. There is a quaint old American political theory called Posse Comitatus, an extreme form of localism which holds that the county sheriff is the highest law in the land. (Furthermore, if the sheriff doesn’t follow the people’s will, they can take him out and hang him, literally, with rope, in the middle of town, at high noon, and leave the body there until sundown.)

But Sheriff Thomas Dart, who just said “No” to a stack of 1,500 eviction notices on his desk, is not some backwoods lawman with a Posse Comitatus fixation. His jurisdiction includes Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city.

A Bloomberg Businessweek article tells us,

Dart said his office reviewed 350 foreclosure cases and only 17 had complete paperwork to justify an eviction.

The Sheriff of Cook County, Illinois, held a press conference last month to announce his decision to hold off on carrying out the foreclosure evictions until he could be convinced of their legality. The lenders, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Ally Financial Inc.’s GMAC have admitted that there may be “deficiencies” in some of their work product, and Dart is holding out for better documentation. Even more remarkable, he has done this before:

This is the second time since 2008 that Dart has halted Cook County evictions over concerns about foreclosure practices and procedures.

In an interview conducted by Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace Public Radio, Dart talked about the stand he took two years ago, when…

[…] it was absolutely clear that the banks were not notifying people that were physically in the houses that they wanted me to empty out… I’ll never forget the one family… there were three little kids, a mother and a father, and then all of a sudden, here I am, standing next to seven deputies, all dressed in black with battering rams, in their living room. The children are crying, and I’m sitting down with these people, and they’re showing me paperwork after paperwork showing they’ve paid all their bills, they’ve paid everything… the injustice was unbelievable.

The experience caused Dart to hire a social worker to meet with families on the brink of eviction and help them figure out how to get some other kind of housing. In the current situation, Dart is not saying he will never throw anybody out again. But he is telling the banks,

[… A]ll I’m asking is just send me an affidavit that you’re willing to put your name on saying that these foreclosures that you’ve given me, that you’ve done them properly.

For a while there, it looked like he was going to run for mayor of Chicago, but then he decided not to. There is more than one reason why a politician might let such a rumor get started. For instance, just for the fun of throwing a scare into the other contenders. Tom Dart has certainly shown himself a sheriff to be reckoned with.

Note: The originator of the “man bites dog” meme was, according to Wikipedia, either Alfred Harmsworth, John B. Bogart, or Charles Anderson Dana.

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Source: “Bank of America, JPMorgan Chicago Evictions on Hold,” Bloomberg Businessweek, 11/04/10
Source: “A sheriff temporarily halts evictions,” Marketplace.PublicRadio.org, 10/20/10
Source: “Man bites dog (journalism),” Wikipedia
Image by Matt C. (Matt Crampton), used under its Creative Commons license.