Sarah Ford | September 9, 2014

Victory! Town Will No Longer Treat Domestic Violence Victims as Nuisances

By Sandra S. Park

Three strikes and you’re out of your home and on the street – all because you called 911 for help. That was the nightmare faced by Lakisha Briggs and other residents of Norristown, Pa.

Under a local ordinance, three calls to the police in four months, including for protection from crimes such as domestic violence, would result in revocation of the landlord’s rental license and removal of the tenant for trespassing. A second version of the ordinance imposed steep fines on the landlord that could be avoided if the landlord evicted the tenant, even if she was in dire need of emergency or police assistance.

These types of ordinances – often referred to as nuisance ordinances, crime-free ordinances, or disorderly behavior ordinances – legitimize victim-blaming with the force of law. By treating calls to the police as a nuisance, they jeopardize the security of victims of crime, punish them for seeking protection, and undermine public safety.

Ms. Briggs experienced the harshness of Norristown’s ordinance first hand, when she was assaulted by her ex-boyfriend in 2012. He was arrested, but a police officer told her that more calls to the police would lead to her eviction. The law trapped Ms. Briggs in a vicious Catch-22: call the police when her ex-boyfriend returned to attack her and lose her home, or keep her home and perhaps lose her life.

After Ms. Briggs suffered additional violence, including being stabbed in the neck with a broken glass ashtray, she and her young daughter were threatened with eviction and removal from their home. The ACLU and the ACLU of Pennsylvania, with the law firm Pepper Hamilton, filed a lawsuit challenging the ordinance, arguing that it violated Ms. Briggs’ rights under the Constitution and federal law.

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