Why Do D.C. Evictions Require Rifle-Wielding U.S. Marshals?

Exiting my apartment building yesterday, I noticed a pair of armed, SWAT-vest wearing law enforcement agents overseeing a crowd of people moving boxes and furniture. Coming closer, I could see that the agents were U.S. marshals. The people helping with the move were mostly in matching neon T-shirts and there were at least a dozen of them, despite relatively little in the way of things to be moved. It turns out both strange details can be accounted for by one thing: the U.S. Marshals Service's involvement in Washington, D.C., tenant evictions.

It's standard practice for U.S. marshals to preside over D.C. evictions, in the same way that sheriff's deputies might do in other areas. That's because it falls to U.S. marshals to serve and carry orders of the Superior Court for the District of Columbia, including "Writs of Restitution that are issued for the recovery by eviction of tenants." The U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia also sets the rules for the process of physically evicting tentants.

This winds up weird for a number of reasons. First, let's consider the impact on evicted tenants. Being evicted is tough enough without the public embarrassment and intimidation of having it made into a spectacle complete with rifle-wearing U.S. marshals in SWAT vests and a baseball team's worth of mandated movers. And the potential for escalation of hostilities, violence, and (should anything get out of hand) criminal penalties are always greater when you throw armed federal agents into the mix. Sure, some sort of security during evictions might be necessary, but in most cases it could probably be handled better by building security staff or community police than people primarily trained for things like federal-prisoner transport and apprehending fugitives.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of D.C. recently filed an official complaint against the U.S. Marshals Service related to the 2015 eviction of Donya Williams and her 12-year-old daughter. Williams alleges she was naked when multiple marshals burst into her room and barely let her dress before shuffling her out. "And I'm sitting there just shaking, just trembling and I'm saying, 'please just give me a minute to get dressed because I don't have on anything," Williams told local ABC affiliate WJLA.

"There is not even a plausible safety justification for that," ACLU attorney Scott Michelman said. "It's just humiliating and it's wrong."

Then there's the burden for landlords. Certainly some landlords may want law-enforcement presence during the eviction of some tenants, but not every eviction is potentially volatile or dangerous. Again, building security staff or community police could sometimes suffice. Yet landlords aren't given these options and must bring in a minimum of two U.S. marshals for the entirety of the eviction process and also pay their hourly rate.

Landlords are also required by the U.S. Marshals Service to provide a specified number of movers, depending on the type of dwelling and number of bedrooms. This is not bendable based on the actual size of a dwelling or amount of stuff leftover therein. For one-bedroom apartments, 10 movers are required. For two-bedroom apartments, landlords must provide 15 movers and for three-bedroom apartments there must be 20 movers. Single-family home evictions require landlords to provide a minimum of 25 movers.

What's more, the marshals will call off the whole thing the day before if weather forecasts call for a 50 percent or greater chance of precipitation within the next 24 hours or temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

Requiring so many bodies to show up for moves that may be canceled last minute (and may or may not actually require that much manpower) has lead to some perverse business practices. Rather than being able to rely on regular movers (who may charge per worker provided and have strict penalties for last-minute cancellations) or volunteers from local nonprofits (who could actually benefit from or hold on to leftover possessions but may prefer to do the job with less workers in more time), landlords often contract with companies that specialize in evictions. In turn, these companies keep costs low by relying on a roving cast of day laborers, often recruited outside D.C. homeless shelters, and—according to a recent investigation from the Washington City Paper—often refusing to pay what they initially promise or failing to provide workers with basic amenities like water.

Meanwhile, the District of Columbia Superior Court writ allowing a landlord to evict a given tenant is only good for 75 days. If bad weather and a frequent backlog of cases prevents U.S. marshals from being able to preside over an eviction within that time period, tenants can continue to live at the property without paying rent and landlords must reapply and repay for a second writ.