Automatic Sealing of Eviction Records

Within the context of the current housing crisis, evictions have become an even more salient issue among Georgians and hold far more lasting consequences than anticipated. Over the past year, nearly 3.5% of the residents that constitute the five counties in the metro Atlanta region have had evictions filed against them.[1] Though this percentage may not seem high at first glance, it represents 133,599 individuals within one metropolitan area who now have a damaging permanent mark on their eviction record under current Georgia law, regardless of their liability in the situation- and that statistic represents only the most recent year.

In 2018, a total of 284,000 evictions were filed across Georgia, affecting 2.75% of the state’s population and producing a filing rate 11 percentage points higher than the rest of the United States.[2] As a state that is 34.4% renter occupied, Georgia’s rank in the top three eviction filing rates in the country threatens alarming effects for the tenants whose records are marred by those proceedings.[3]

An eviction filing has lasting repercussions beyond its initial visible ramifications, specifically in terms of seeking future housing. Eviction filings are visible to potential landlords through public records and credit reports, and the tenant screening process often involves disfavoring or outright denying rental applications that have any prior history with evictions, irrespective of whether the eviction was dismissed or even ruled in favor of the tenant. Consequently, tenants who were at little to no legal fault in the eviction face multiple rejections and are unable to find acceptance in a safe, clean residence. Given that the U.S. Fair Housing Act is the only legal restriction on a landlord’s screening process in Georgia, such discrimination of applicants on the basis of prior eviction filings is not prohibited either.[4] Moreover, Georgia law contains no provisions for the sealing of eviction records on any grounds, making it near impossible for some tenants to relocate into affordable, quality housing.[5]

Possible legislation to help address and mitigate the effects of this issue could propose the automatic sealing of an eviction case upon filing, with the open possibility of publishing the record if the plaintiff prevails. Given the time-consuming and unpredictable nature of eviction proceedings, adding an eviction filing to a tenant’s record immediately is counterproductive and only exacerbates the tenant’s existing difficulty in relocating. Moreover, evictions can result in dismissal, settlement, or a ruling in the tenant’s favor as opposed to the landlord’s. Holding the eviction filing off the record until a judgment is entered offers the tenant protection from its unfounded negative implication while allowing for its inclusion if the landlord wins the case. In doing so, a landlord’s interests in renting to a suitable candidate are satisfied without wronging tenants with an unwarranted eviction record. Successful examples of this type of legislation can be seen in numerous other states such as California, Colorado, Nevada and Minnesota.[6]

Legally, the 2020 Georgia Senate Bill 288 helps provide the necessary justification to avoid violating Georgia open court record rules.[7] The legislation expands criminal record restrictions to convicted misdemeanors, allowing for limits on access to records that are of equivalent or greater relevance to the public than eviction history. Similarly, the automated sealing of eviction filings with provisions for public release would have a large enough impact on the affected tenants’ housing stability to outweigh the public interest in access.

Realistically, coordinating the technological infrastructure of each county’s record management system would be the costliest aspect of such legislation. Automatic sealing of filed eviction requires a level of software proficiency that must be synchronized across the state in order to deliver an equitable solution. Allocating resources to conduct the transition would likely be a point of contention. However, with ever-rising prices in today’s housing market and the resulting increase in eviction filings statewide, measures to protect Georgia citizens from the prejudice of a former record should be prioritized.