Imagine that you are being attacked by your abusive former boyfriend in your own home, where you are raising your three-year-old daughter. Your life is in danger.
But if you call the police, you know you might be evicted, because the law in your community requires landlords to throw tenants out if cops come to the home three times within a four-month period for "disorderly behavior."
The last time your 21-year-old daughter called the cops, they came and they told you, "You are on three strikes. We’re gonna have your landlord evict you." And so you stopped calling. Soon the boyfriend – with whom you’ve been trying to break up – saw his chance to move back in and continue his abusive behavior. You couldn’t do anything about it.
Then one night, he almost killed you by stabbing you in the neck with a piece of broken glass. One of your neighbors called the cops. You were helicoptered to a trauma center and survived. But when you came home from the hospital, the city where you have lived for 24 years had started proceedings to force you out of your apartment, against the wishes of your landlord – who stood to lose his rental license if he didn’t file eviction proceedings.
This is the story of Lakisha Briggs, as outlined in a suit filed last week (PDF) in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and the law firm Pepper Hamilton are bringing the federal suit on Briggs’s behalf against the borough of Norristown, Pennsylvania.
Last year, in response to a threatened suit by the ACLU over the constitutionality of the law, which would have forced Briggs and her young daughter from their home, Norristown repealed the "three strikes" ordinance. But just a couple of weeks later, they passed another one that would punish landlords with escalating fines if police respond to calls of "disorderly behavior" from their tenants. (Briggs was not evicted, and moved to another apartment.)
So the ACLU has gone ahead with the suit. Here’s what the ACLU’s Sandra Park wrote on the group’s blog about the filing:
These laws violate tenants' First Amendment right to petition their government, which includes the right to contact law enforcement. They also violate the federal Violence Against Women Act, which protects many domestic violence victims from eviction based on the crimes committed against them, and the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, and was enacted 45 years ago this month. The ACLU has long argued that evictions based on domestic violence can discriminate against women, because such evictions are often motivated by gender stereotypes that hold victims responsible for the abuse they experience, and because the vast majority of victims are women.
Park, who is a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s women’s rights project, says that she believes that ordinances like the one in Norristown may be becoming more prevalent around the country, although it is hard to keep track of such laws at the municipal level. She says many places in Pennsylvania have enacted them in recent years. "My sense is that it’s a growing trend," Park says. "What they see is they have a way of cutting down requests for police assistance and cutting down their budgets."
In many places, Park says, municipalities might not even be aware of the potential impact on domestic violence victims. In Norristown, in contrast, borough officials were well aware of the way the law might affect women such as Lakisha Briggs.
A request for comment from Robert Glisson, interim municipal administrator of Norristown, was not immediately returned. But he issued a statement to International Business Times last week about the ordinance in question:
"The ordinance provision allegedly being attacked by the lawsuit does not, in any way, discriminate against any persons, nor does it punish victims of domestic violence," Glisson wrote. "Domestic violence is abhorrent to society, and the Norristown Police Department remains constantly vigilant for those crimes. Until the lawsuit is served and reviewed by legal counsel, Norristown cannot respond to specific allegations."
The ACLU’s Park says that ordinances such as the one in Norristown does have a dramatic effect on the lives of domestic violence survivors, as well as the way domestic violence crimes are perceived by and responded to in the community. "It’s both the impact on housing for the survivor and her family, and also her ability to ask for police assistance," says Park. "We’re concerned that some police already think [domestic violence] is a private matter. This actually makes that attitude law."
Park says that enforcement of "disorderly behavior" ordinances such as Norristown’s may also disproportionately affect communities of color. She points to a recent study by Matthew Desmond of Harvard University and Nicol Valdez of Columbia University that looked at the way Milwaukee’s “nuisance ordinance” is enforced. From the abstract of that study:
Properties in black neighborhoods disproportionately received citations, and those located in more integrated black neighborhoods had the highest likelihood of being deemed nuisances. Nearly a third of all citations were generated by domestic violence; most property owners abated this “nuisance” by evicting battered women.
Park says she hopes the Lakisha Briggs case will bring home the potential human cost of nuisance ordinances. "Our hope is that once people see the real-life impact, we can do some education," she says. And that women such as Briggs will no longer be forced to choose between enduring violence and losing their homes.