Domestic Abuse Survivors in Pennsylvania Town Will No Longer Face Eviction for Calling the Police

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Analysis Violence

Domestic Abuse Survivors in Pennsylvania Town Will No Longer Face Eviction for Calling the Police

Annamarya Scaccia

"Nuisance ordinances," which penalize landlords for tenants' supposed disorderly conduct, can often force women to choose between escaping their abuser and keeping secure housing.

Two years ago, Lakisha Briggs faced eviction from her home in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Under the town’s nuisance ordinance, the police responses to domestic violence Briggs suffered were considered “strikes” by the Norristown police chief, leading to her eventual displacement. In other words, Briggs, a Black mother of two daughters, had effectively been held responsible for her own abuse—part of a broader trend exposed when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on her behalf challenging the ordinance’s constitutionality last year.

On Monday, September 8, the ACLU announced that Norristown’s Municipal Council had voted to repeal the law as part of a settlement the organization reached with the city. Norristown has also agreed to not adopt a similar code in the future.

It’s a significant move, said Sandra Park, senior attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, because it demonstrates that laws like these are more problematic than pragmatic—particularly for people in abusive households.

“Anything that limits or penalizes folks for making calls to the police is going to harm domestic violence [survivors],” Park, who worked on the case, told Rewire. “This lawsuit will help make that connection for municipalities analyzing whether or not they want to enact one of these types of ordinances or keep one on the books.”

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“It sets a high-profile precedent for other cities,” she added.

In September 2012, three months after Norristown threatened Briggs with eviction, the ACLU sent a letter to the city urging the dissolution of the nuisance ordinance. Though the council did repeal the original law threatening landlords with the loss of their rental licenses, it passed an alternate version the same day—one that charged landlords mounting fines with every violation.

But advocates felt that this replacement would still lead to tenants being evicted, albeit more indirectly, for circumstances beyond their control. So in April 2013, the national ACLU filed the federal lawsuit in conjunction with the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Pepper Hamilton LLP, a multidisciplinary firm with offices in Philadelphia. The ACLU contended in the suit that all incarnations of the nuisance ordinance violate the First Amendment’s right to petition the government—in this case, call for police help—among other key anti-discriminatory laws.

In mid-June of that year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also launched a separate investigation into Norristown’s nuisance ordinance, accusing the city of violating the Fair Housing Act on the basis of sex “by enacting and enforcing” the law. The inquiry is still ongoing, pending settlement negotiations with Norristown.

The two cases combined, say activists, were enough to demonstrate how prejudicial the code could be for the town’s citizens and leaders.

“[HUD was] instrumental in helping us convince Norristown that they should repeal their ordinance rather than just tinker at the edges of it,” Sara Rose, who represented ACLU-PA on the case, told Rewire.

According to Rose, representatives from HUD and the ACLU, along with Pepper Hamilton lawyers, met with Norristown officials during litigation to discuss proposed code changes. Ultimately, however, Norristown leaders came to the conclusion that, as Rose said, “there’s just no way to craft an ordinance that fines landlords for their tenants’ behavior without having an impact on people like domestic violence victims.”

Norristown will also pay $495,000 in damages to Briggs as part of the settlement. City officials could not be reached for comment at the time of publication.

The Consequence of Nuisance Ordinances

When city officials pass nuisance ordinances, the intention behind them is often simple: to make the neighborhood safer by curbing disruptive behavior, typically defined as any action that’s inordinately loud or belligerent. That often means they’re designed to penalize landlords, either of apartment complexes or single-family homes, with increasing fines or the threat of rental license revocation unless the tenant is evicted for their supposed disorderly conduct.

But these ordinances have been shown to disproportionately impact domestic violence survivors. As Rewire cited in 2013, a 2012 study out of Milwaukee examining that city’s own similar law found that “39 of 71 evictions or threats of eviction by landlords whose citation letters included domestic violence incidents involved women tenants—many of whom weren’t residing with their abuser. That’s compared to four cases of men, and nine cases of couples living together.”

Too often, because the threat of eviction is so real, these codes essentially force people in violent situations to decide between escaping their abuser and having secure housing. Research shows that domestic violence is listed as the leading cause of homelessness for a significant percentage of homeless women, many of whom, like Briggs, have been punished for crimes committed against them. Women in lower-income households and neighborhoods are also twice as likely to experience domestic violence than those in higher-income neighborhoods, making other accommodations harder to access for themselves and their families.

All in all, nuisance ordinances create barriers for survivors in seeking police help, said Denise Flynn, legal advocacy project director for the Women’s Center of Montgomery County in Norristown.

“Victims of domestic violence should not be afraid to call the very entities that are in place to protect and to serve,” Flynn said. “If they’re afraid to call [police] because they’re fearing they’re going to be evicted, then they’re gonna make the choice whether to live with domestic violence or [not] have a roof over their heads.”

“That decision might cause them to die,” she added.

As Rewire reported last year, Briggs was threatened with eviction from her home in 2012 under Norristown’s discretionary ordinance because three police visits were made to the apartment within a four-month period. The last police call—the one that prompted Briggs’s displacement—occurred in June, when her former boyfriend, Wilbert Bennett, stabbed her in the neck with a glass shard, resulting in Briggs being airlifted to an area hospital.

The night of the assault, Briggs reluctantly allowed Bennett into her home because she was afraid that calling the police would cause her to lose her housing. Even during the assault, she still didn’t phone 9-1-1 for the same reason; a neighbor called instead. And, under the ordinance, Briggs’ fears were justified: Her landlord was pressured to evict her after she returned from the hospital.

The agreement to repeal that ordinance altogether, Flynn believes, signals that Norristown officials recognize how such codes “revictimize the victim.”

“The lawsuit showed them they were wrong and gave them the opportunity to correct it,” she continued.

As noted in Rewire’s initial report, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic (PCADV) had logged 19 known nuisance property ordinances in the state as of 2013, most of which carry similar consequences to the ones Briggs withstood. Rose, however, said the ACLU now knows of at least 35 of these laws in Pennsylvania, although she’s sure “there are many we don’t know about.”

“Ultimately, these ordinances make communities less safe because they make people afraid to call the police,” Rose said.

And Pennsylvania isn’t the only state with such barriers for domestic violence survivors. A report released in the summer of 2013 by the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law stated that more than 100 municipalities in Illinois had enacted nuisance ordinances. Park reported that at least 20 of these laws have been identified in New York state.

Since filing the suit, the ACLU has sent letters to “tons of cities” that have enforced their own ordinances or are contemplating enacting them, said Rose. Some efforts have resulted in towns, like northeastern Pennsylvania’s Vandling, nixing the codes.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the state, in Mount Oliver, Rose said the ACLU-PA also recently intervened on behalf of a survivor facing eviction for multiple police visits related to domestic violence. The ACLU and Mount Oliver came to an agreement before reaching litigation stage—as part of that pact, the town reworked its law so now landlords are only notified of any incidents at their property involving police. There are no longer any fines involved.

“I Am Not a Nuisance”

With the announcement of the settlement, the ACLU launched its “I Am Not a Nuisance” campaign, a multi-pronged effort highlighting how ordinances “treat people who reach out to law enforcement as nuisances rather than looking at what their needs may be for emergency or police assistance,” said Park.

There are three parts to the campaign: tracking both enacted and proposed ordinances across the country, promoting state legislation that safeguards tenants’ rights, and crowdsourcing stories directly from the very people they affect—tenants and landlords.

To gather such broad-based data, the ACLU developed an online survey inquiring whether a tenant has faced eviction or if a landlord was pressed by their municipality to evict someone due to multiple police visits, even when their tenant was the one who needed help. There’s also a question whether the citations in question were connected to stalking incidents or domestic, dating, or sexual violence.

The survey, said Park, will help flesh out the breadth of the impact of nuisance ordinances, as well as serving as a way to alert people about the issue.

Through the course of its work so far, Park explained, the ACLU has found that because only landlords are notified when an ordinance is allegedly violated, many in turn simply tell their tenants to either vacate their home or “stop calling the police.”

“[Tenants] don’t necessarily know why that is happening,” Park told Rewire. “We wanted to educate folks that there might be an ordinance at the root of the problem.”

Although tenants’ rights are more the focus of ACLU’s work, Park noted that the advocacy group also wants to hear from the landlords themselves.

“Oftentimes, it’s the landlords who are most concerned about these ordinances” because they’re the first point-of-contact when an alleged violation occurs, Park told Rewire. And as seen in Briggs’s case, landlords are “often put in these positions where they are being pressured to evict a tenant they don’t actually want to evict.”

As Rewire originally reported, Briggs’s landlord, David Sudman, was reluctant to evict the mother of two from his property. While Sudman “tried very hard to help her,” Rose said at the time, and didn’t feel the action was fair, Norristown still rescinded his rental license under the original law due to the near-fatal assault that landed Briggs in the hospital. “Ultimately, the borough gave him no choice,” Rose told Rewire.

Since the topic of nuisance ordinances is centered at the local level, Park expects that the campaign will be an ongoing undertaking.

“One of the big jobs we have in front of us is educating municipalities and municipal attorneys about this issue,” Park said. “What we often find is that municipal [officials] will start considering passing one of these ordinances just because they find out their neighboring municipality has one, and they haven’t really thought through [if] they actually need it [and] does it actually help them.” She also mentioned that public pressure to enact codes can also be a factor.

Which ties into Norristown’s settlement. According to Park, the ACLU plans to use the settlement as a point of reference in talking with various city administrations and their advising attorneys about the issue because, she said, there seems to be a “lack of awareness of potential consequences that this type of ordinance can have on its residents.”

As a whole, the more the ACLU can drum up “both interest [in] and knowledge of these ordinances, the more likely we are to successfully challenge [ordinances] and actually change the law so that tenants can’t be evicted,” Rose told Rewire. In addition, the ACLU intends to file more suits “challenging the enforcement of these ordinances against tenants.”  

“We hope that the Norristown settlement will send the message to municipalities that they should repeal their ordinances or not pass them in the first place,” Rose added.

According to Rose, Briggs, still living in Norristown, is doing well and is happy with the settlement. Briggs is declining media interviews, though, out of concern that her former abuser, Bennett, could find her if certain details about her life are revealed.

Last August, the New York Times reported that Bennett is serving a one- to two-year sentence for aggravated assault. He is currently detained at a medium-security correctional facility in Chester, Pennsylvania, according to state records.