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Wrongfully-evicted Detroit woman sues city, police

Exhibit from Burney v City of Detroit
Whitney Burney's lawsuit says after her landlord had police evict her after falsely claiming she was a squatter, he stole or destroyed property she had to leave behind.

The city of Detroit, several Detroit police officers, and a city landlord are being sued over a wrongful eviction case from December of last year.

Police hastily evicted Whitney Burney and her four children from a home she was renting after her landlord claimed she was squatting on the property. Her lawsuit claims the police acted wrongly and violated her rights in multiple ways.

Burney’s lawsuit says police accepted the landlord’s claim that she was a squatter despite ample evidence to the contrary. It claims the landlord sexually harassed and stalked her, stole items that she was forced leave behind during the eviction and trashed many remaining items.

Police officers at the nearby precinct had been to the home before, knew of Burney’s issues with the landlord, and even wrote up a police report describing her as a tenant, said Detroit Justice Center attorney Joe McGuire, who’s representing Burney. However, he said officers took her landlord’s word that she was a squatter and evicted Burney after discovering she didn’t have a written lease.

“This is pretty shocking because if you know anything about landlord-tenant law, especially in the City of Detroit, you know that a large amount of landlords and tenants do not have written leases,” McGuire said. “It's not required under the law to have a written lease in order to have a binding landlord-tenant relationship.”

McGuire said the lawsuit aims to permanently stop Detroit police from evicting tenants on landlords’ behalf without a court order, something he said happens frequently. Police "say that they don't evict tenants, they merely remove squatters,” McGuire said. “This is really just playing with semantics.”

“The issue of Detroit police officers illegally evicting tenants on behalf of landlords is very clearly not a case of just a few bad apples. It’s an ongoing and systemic problem,” he said.

Police officials apologized to Burney earlier this year and acknowledged her eviction never should have happened. The city also offered some limited support with moving expenses and paid for a short-term motel stay.

But, “that’s not enough,” said McGuire. “They have not offered to actually meaningfully compensate her for what happened. They have not announced any changes to how they conduct responses to calls about tenants or alleged squatting, or how they train officers about landlord-tenant relationships and accusations of squatting or any of their policies, anything like that.”

Spokespeople for the City of Detroit and Detroit Police did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Burney’s lawsuit.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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