What if fighting for your life meant having to live it on the street? Women and their families who suffer in dangerous domestic violence situations are being victimized twice thanks to a laws in towns and cities across the nation that evict tenants who call 911 too often. Thankfully, the ACLU is stepping in to preserve victims’ First Amendment’s free speech rights to communicate with and petition law enforcement.
Norristown, Pennsylvania’s Municipal Code No. 245-3, for example, makes landlords responsible for their tenants’ “disorderly behavior.” Unfortunately, in addition to drug offenses and other situations that jeopardize communities, it is a very generous umbrella that also encompasses violent altercations between at risk women and their significant others. One study found found that the vast majority of “nuisance properties” (319 out of a total of 503) were located in black neighborhoods and that more than one-third of the so-called nuisance citations came in domestic violence cases.
“The idea animating this and hundreds of similar laws in big cities and “blighted” suburbs,” Slate explains, ” is that landlords should be deputized to help weed out drug dealers and other violent and dangerous renters to create crime-free neighborhoods.” Norristown Council President Gary H. Simpson said in a statement to the Philadelphia Inquirer that the council “is looking to protect not only those who suffer from these deplorable acts, but also those who believe they deserve a better quality of life. We are looking to place greater levels of accountability on the landlords.”
But pressuring landlords to either penalize renters who are victims of domestic violence or find themselves in hot water for hosting a nuisance property is forcing already vulnerable women and children on the street. According to Slate, one landlord shrugged, “Like I tell my tenants: You can’t be calling the police because your boyfriend hit you again. They’re not your big babysitter. It happened last week, and you threw him out. But then you let him back in, and it happens again and again. Either learn from the first experience or, you know, leave. Don’t take him back and get hit because you tell him, I don’t know, ‘I don’t want to sleep with you.’ ”
Renter and 34-year-old single mom Lakisha Briggs was a living in the suburbs of Philadelphia when she had to choose between living on the street or not living at all. Briggs told the New York Times, “If I called the police to get him out of my house, I’d get evicted. If I physically tried to remove him, somebody would call 911 and I’d be evicted.” In April the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and Briggs’ lawyer sued the borough of Norristown on Briggs’ behalf, arguing that its disorderly behavior ordinance—and hundreds of similar laws around the country—unconstitutionally punish protected First Amendment speech and adversely affect domestic violence victims, even going so far as labeling them pubic nuisances.
A federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled that the “complex and novel” question of whether towns can evict tenants who call 911 too often can go to trial for dispute. Now, Lakisha’s potentially precedent-setting suit is being watched by civil rights advocates nationwide. — Casandra Armour