REUTERS/Larry Downing

Repeat emergency callers can lose their homes under so-called “nuisance” laws, even if they're suffering real emergencies.

Nancy Markham’s instinct was to call the police when she was attacked in her home.

That’s exactly what the single mother of two from Surprise, Arizona, did when her ex-boyfriend allegedly choked her, punched her, or threatened her with weapons on multiple occasions between March and September 2014, according to legal documents describing the incidents. He often fled before the police responded. But in September, Markham received a different response to her 911 calls: an eviction notice.

“The police contacted my property manager because I’d called the police too many times,” says Markham, who spoke to reporters during a media call in August. “I’d never heard of this law before.”

Markham was referring to a local “nuisance law” that targets housing units that call 911 four or more times in a month to report a crime, or are the location where two or more crimes take place. Once the city identifies a housing unit as a nuisance and informs the landlord, he or she must ensure the conditions cease or risk losing the business license. Getting rid of the nuisance usually means getting rid of the tenant.

Cities across the U.S. have enacted similar nuisance laws, generally to cut down on the volume of 911 calls. The idea is that by penalizing people who dial in repeatedly, police departments can avoid wasted time and more efficiently fight crime. But sometimes people frequently call 911 because they frequently endure criminal activity. This is especially true with victims of domestic abuse, some of whom have been thrown out of their homes by such laws.

And that’s spurring legal battles around the country to turn the tide against this type of ordinance.

How nuisance laws work

On their surface, nuisance laws—sometimes known as “crime-free housing” ordinances—seek something most any city would want: quiet and law-abiding rental properties. A Surprise city government “Issues Update” from July 2009 says the goal of the nuisance law, which was then in development, was “to ensure that for lease residential units do not become detriments to the quality of life in our neighborhoods.”

The Surprise nuisance law was adopted in 2010. From then on, if the police logged multiple 911 calls from a property, they responded to them but could contact the landlord and notify them of the nuisance property. It became the landlord’s job to “abate” the problem or risk legal punishment. And that’s where the legal questions start, because “abate” almost always means “evict.”

“Cities have not typically been very open-minded about thinking about abatement,” attorney Sandra Park, who leads the American Civil Liberties Union’s efforts to challenge nuisance laws, tells CityLab. “Even if they don’t say ‘eviction’ explicitly, that’s what they mean. They could have a completely different attitude. Instead they take a more punitive approach.”

This leads to the kind of twisted scenarios that will send you running for a copy of the Constitution. Like the 2012 case of Lakisha Briggs of Norristown, Pennsylvania. Police there moved to evict her after she got flown by helicopter to the hospital with a four-inch stab wound in her neck. Her violent ex-boyfriend did the stabbing, but it was her apartment, so the law considered her the nuisance.

Your safety or your home

The ACLU sued in the case of Briggs and won, spurring statewide legislation to protect tenants who need to call 911 in an emergency. This August, the civil liberties organization also filed a lawsuit against the city of Surprise with Nancy Markham as the plaintiff. The suit argues that the arbitrary numerical limit on calls to the police denied Markham her 1st Amendment right to petition the government and 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection.

Last month, the Arizona district court issued a preliminary injunction to stop enforcement of the nuisance ordinance until the case is resolved or the city amends the law in a way that addresses the problem. Sergeant Tim Klarkowski of the Surprise Police Department confirmed to CityLab that the ordinance is under review with the legal team, and that potential revisions could be on their way.

A good place to start would be where the ordinance fails to distinguish whether the person living in the rental unit is responsible for the crimes or is a victim of them. The mere fact that a crime occurred at a particular apartment is enough to potentially condemn the occupant to homelessness.

“If you’ve got a loud party going on and it goes on every weekend, that’s a different thing than someone who is getting battered every weekend,” says Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “For some of those ordinances and laws, there’s no distinction about what that can be.”

Nor does the law require anyone to inform the tenant that the city has determined their residence to be a nuisance. For all the visits the police made to her place, Markham never heard about the law until she was evicted.

But even if the cops, responding to yet another attack by her ex-boyfriend, had warned her that one more 911 call would exceed her monthly limit, what then? The only way to maintain her home would be to refrain from calling the police the next time the ex-boyfriend came to attack her. “Nobody should have to face the impossible choice between her safety and her home,” Markham says.

In fact, the nuisance law gives abusers a new legal weapon against their victims, says Gretchen Arnold, a professor of women’s and gender studies at St. Louis University who researches how these laws affect domestic abuse survivors. In her research, Arnold has interviewed women who believed their abusers acted more violently because they knew the victim could not call the police. She also found instances in which the abuser called the police on the victim’s apartment as a form of harassment, because it racked up the count towards nuisance level.

And if a tenant does get evicted for too many police calls, they carry a label of “nuisance tenant” on their record, which makes it harder to rent a new place.

A national concern

These laws aren’t just an Arizona or Pennsylvania phenomenon. Park says that in addition to those states the ACLU has worked to challenge or raise awareness about them in Iowa, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York, and Wisconsin. There’s no comprehensive list of nuisance laws, though, because it’s hard to systematically identify them without sifting through every city’s local ordinances. And there are a lot of cities in America.

“Without really trying we’ve documented hundreds of them,” Park says.

Perhaps the most effective way to prevent these laws from evicting domestic abuse survivors is to pass state legislation overriding the local ordinances. Minnesota has a law that protects a tenant’s right to call the police for emergency assistance. Pennsylvania passed a broad protection for tenants calling in response to abuse or crime. An Illinois law that goes into effect November 19 specifically protects victims of domestic violence and people with disabilities.

But elsewhere local governments are still trying to impose the nuisance restrictions. The St. Louis County Council just last month tried to pass a bill that would force landlords to evict tenants for three nuisance violations within 12 months. Pressure from critics led them to amend it to exempt victims of domestic abuse, but the amended version of the bill later passed the council and contained justice concerns of its own.

Cities could save time and legal fees by not using their authority to evict domestic abuse survivors. The benefits to the health and safety of residents would be even more significant. But city councils have shown a startling inclination to embrace nuisance laws without stopping to consider their dire human consequences. Those consequences will continue until all cities treat a true call for help as something to be answered, not punished.

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