Before 8 a.m. on a Wednesday in September, Dane County Sheriff Deputies Brian Harter and Brian Smith idled their cars around the corner from a house on Madison's east side. They are about to evict the people living there.
Harter waved to some children heading off to school as he and Smith assessed the situation. The tenants loaded their possessions into the back of a U-Haul truck when the deputies parked their cars outside of the house.
The deputies were familiar with the address. They were set to carry out an eviction there over a year earlier, but the landlord called it off. This time, the family of six had to leave, despite not knowing where they were headed.
“Hotel, probably,” the mother said. “You really can’t go stay with people. (Landlords) don’t allow that.”
Evictions can be ugly and are a complicated process for both tenants and landlords. Changes in state landlord-tenant laws over the past five years have further complicated the process.
As the county’s full-time civil executioners, Harter and Smith carry out residential and business evictions and foreclosures and collect court-ordered payments. They start their days early to go through paperwork from landlords seeking evictions and to plan where they’ll be doing their work.
“We are the face of that bank where that loan went bad, the face of that landlord where the lease agreement went bad,” Harter said. “So we have to walk that fine line. We are a disinterested third party, but we have to respect everybody’s rights as we go through this process.”
The deputies have also focused in recent years on educating others within the sheriff’s office, as well as other local law enforcement agencies, municipalities and community groups on the rights of tenants and landlords. Smith said nearly every day he fields calls from landlords and tenants with questions about evictions.
"It’s kind of been the battle of taking the veil of secrecy off of the whole process and trying to be more transparent," Smith said.
In Wisconsin, tenants can only be forced to leave their residence after they have a court date and only if the judge rules in the landlord’s favor. The judge must give the eviction order to the sheriff’s office deputies, who are the only people who can physically remove tenants from their residences.
Landlords cannot change locks, throw away belongings or take any other action without a court order.
“There's a process,” Harter said. “You can’t just do it.”
Landlords initiate the eviction process when they issue a written notice stating how the tenant violated the lease, the number of days the person has to take action, whether the tenant can fix the violation and stay or if they have to leave. It must also include whether rent is due.
This could be a five-day, 14-day or 30-day notice. These notices are only for the landlord’s files and are not yet entered into the court’s record.
If a tenant has had a lease for a year or less, the landlord is required to issue a “curable” 5-day notice for the first lease violation. If the tenant fixes the violation but breaks the lease in the same category within a year, the landlord can issue a “curable” 5-day or non-curable 14-day notice for the second violation. Non-curable means there's nothing a tenant can do to avoid an official eviction action.
After notice is given to tenants, landlords file for an eviction hearing in small claims court. Tenants should then receive a “summons and complaint” from a civil executioner at least five days before the court date.
In 2017, 1,895 eviction cases were initiated in Dane County Court, according to court records. This is below the five-year average of 2,527 cases initiated from 2000 to 2015, according to research conducted by UW-Madison associate professor Revel Sims.
In his report, Sims noted eviction cases declined from 2011 to 2015, likely due to non-renewal of leases as an alternative to evictions or tenants deciding to leave before a case entered the court system to avoid having an eviction on their record.
The initial hearing must be scheduled within 25 days of the “summons and complaint,” and a complete trial must be complete within 30 days of the initial hearing. If the tenant loses the case, a judge will issue a “writ of restitution,” which returns possession of the rental property back to the landlord.
When Harter delivers the “writ of restitution” in person, he explains to the tenant what could happen to their property if they stay in the residence until the last minute. He and Smith try to encourage tenants to make plans and move out before they show up to execute the eviction order.
In Dane County, deputies wait 24 hours after posting an eviction as a courtesy to tenants to find time to contact their property manager and potentially work out an agreement.
“Because at the end of the day, what’s the goal? That these folks can voluntarily vacate on their own and find somewhere to go in advance. Then we don’t have to go out,” Harter said. “Because when we show up, they usually have ten to fifteen minutes to gather up some stuff and go.”
If landlords write in their leases that they will not move and store property left behind after an eviction, they can remove the property without involving the sheriff. If leases do not stipulate what to do with property left behind, landlords must work with the sheriff's office to move and store property.
At the early morning eviction in September, the tenants said they were able to pack up the “important stuff” like school clothes for the kids, but some remnants of their four-year stay in the house were left behind.
Children’s toys were scattered across the living room floor and liquor bottles lined the top of a cabinet. In the kitchen, a box of opened Honey Smacks was left on the counter and the cabinet doors were left wide open. Upstairs in a bedroom painted pink, one shoe and a half-empty soda bottle stood in front of a vanity mirror.
After the tenants left the property, landlord Ron Grosso changed the locks on all the doors. By law, the landlord or someone appointed by the landlord must change the locks in the presence of the sheriff’s deputies.
Smith said the house is “one of the cleaner” units they have evicted with the carpet still intact and doors still on the hinges. But Grosso estimated it would take about $15,000 to get the unit back into a condition where he could rent it again and he would lose months of rent.
“Is this what a house should look like when it’s built in 2008?” Grosso said, pointing to damaged carpeting and walls. “Nine years old, this is what it looks like.”