Even as the number of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina climbs – and local governments begin issuing stay-at-home orders to contain further spread of the pathogen – evictions continue in some counties.
A legal quandary has left North Carolina sheriffs to decide for themselves whether to force people from their homes amid a public health crisis.
After Governor Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency on March 10th, North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley followed with an order of her own.
To reduce foot traffic and crowding in state courts, Beasley extended deadlines for legal filings. Among other things, that meant that in the 30 days from March 16th through April 17th, courts would not be holding hearings on landlord-tenant disputes.
Typically, when landlords prevail in such cases, they can go to a clerk of court after a 10-day waiting period to get a Writ of Possession. Those are the legal orders needed by sheriffs to enforce evictions.
"To the specific question of what is the impact of chief justice's order on the sheriffs' obligation to serve writs for possession of property within five days, the answer to that is not clear,” said Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association.
The association provided North Carolina sheriffs with two legal interpretations on the issue of evictions – one said the chief justice's order did not relieve them of the statutory obligation to enforce evictions within a five-day period, the other interpretation said it did.
The problem for sheriffs' departments was that landlords could still go to court clerks and ask for eviction orders on judgments that had been issued before the chief justice suspended hearings.
The head of Legal Aid of North Carolina, George Hausen, says the chief justice's order gave sheriffs all the legal cover they needed to stop evicting people.
"In this environment do you want people doubling up, are the shelters safe for children, they're going to be out of school now as well," Hausen said.
Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead's office continued to enforce evictions but suspended the actions on Monday following a report on the issue by N.C. Policy Watch.
That decision didn't come soon enough to help Abriel Harris, a Legal Aid client.
Harris and her fiance DeAngelo Reddick were evicted from their place at Foxfire Apartments in Durham on March 19th, three days after Chief Justice Beasley's order went into effect. They had fallen behind on rent.
"I'm praying that we're going to be alright, I'm hoping I don't get sick because it's not just us any more," Harris said.
The couple is in their early 20s and Harris is three months pregnant. Reddick just got a job making deliveries for Amazon and Harris says they've been staying in their car while she tries to qualify for food stamps and find family they can stay with.
"Any type of help that I can get to help with our situation and right now he's stressed, I'm stressed," she said.
It's not clear just how many counties continue to enforce evictions and how many have stopped.
Legal Aid provided a list of more than 20 North Carolina sheriffs who decided to cease evictions for the duration of the chief justice's order, including Alamance, Cumberland, Guilford, and Wake counties. The New Hanover County Sheriff's public information officer said his office had stopped enforcing evictions, too.
Orange and Nash counties are among those that are still executing evictions.
Caldwell, of the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association, says not every eviction is the result of a poor person being unable to pay rent.
"If you're a landlord and you have a house or an apartment and the tenants are tearing it up or they're running a drug operation out of it, that's a little different,” Caldwell said.
George Hausen of Legal Aid called on the governor to issue a clear order suspending all eviction actions amid the coronavirus crisis.
In an email, a spokeswoman for Governor Cooper said he knows the crisis is creating significant challenges, including with housing. But if judgments have already been entered, the governor says it's up to the courts to decide whether the eviction will proceed or not.