Many times a justice of the peace is called upon to decide whether a tenant has committed a material and irreparable breach of their lease agreement. Usually this occurs when the tenant, another occupant, or a guest commits a criminal offense on the leased property.
Unlike a criminal prosecution, which requires proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the burden of proof in eviction actions is by a mere preponderance of the evidence. If the tenant is found to have committed a material and irreparable breach, the penalty is immediate termination of the lease.
An eviction may result as early as 12 to 24 hours after judgment is entered. So for the tenant, the landlord, and the other residents of the community, the stakes are high.
The defendant was a middle-aged woman whose teenage son was accused of stealing their next-door neighbor’s safe. The landlord testified that the son was on felony probation for possession of illegal drugs for sale.
About a month prior to the alleged theft the son had driven his mother’s car through the apartment complex wall, causing significant damage. His mother claimed a mechanical problem led to the accident. A handful of other unfortunate incidents involving the wayward teen were described, and his mom explained away each event.
Other neighbors had complained to the landlord about missing property, but the identity of the culprit remained a mystery.
The landlord produced a police report, without objection by the defendant, which laid out the pertinent facts. The neighbor came home to find her safe missing. It contained a few items of jewelry and $400 in cash, which sadly amounted to her life savings. A witness said he saw the son entering the apartment earlier that day.
The neighbor went over to inquire about her missing property, finding only the mother at home. They walked into the mother’s apartment and eventually found the empty safe in her son’s bedroom.
The mother was emotional and insisted that her son was blameless. Perhaps, she testified, a shadowy, vengeful “friend” she had turned in to the police six months earlier had set her son up by planting the safe in his bedroom. On cross examination she could provide little in the way of details, including the friend’s last name.
In his closing remarks the landlord’s counsel made a most unusual argument. After reciting the litany of circumstantial evidence against the defendant he made reference to a scientific principle known as Ockham’s Razor, named for a 14th Century English logician and Franciscan friar named William of Ockham.
In essence, Ockham’s Razor suggests that one start with known, simpler theories to explain certain phenomena before moving to more unknown explanations.
There was, in the final analysis, a single striking fact that tipped the scales in favor of the landlord. The neighbor had told the police that the mother did indeed retrieve the empty safe from her son’s bedroom and return it to her. But not before wiping it down thoroughly with a towel.
Frank J. Conti is the elected justice of the peace for the Dreamy Draw Justice Court, which serves northeast Phoenix and Paradise Valley. Judge Conti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.