By: Patrice Turenne
Blog Category: Domestic Violence Issues and the Law, Economics, & Race
In the last twenty-five years hundreds of cities and towns across the country have enacted nuisance ordinances. These ordinances make landlords responsible for weeding out drug dealers and other types of disruptive and undesirable tenants, with the goal of saving neighborhoods from blight. Landlords are tasked with controlling the conduct of their tenants or face penalties, ranging from fines to the loss of their license to rent. While the goal of creating beautiful and peaceful neighborhoods is admirable, these ordinances have resulted in an unintended negative consequence, namely the labeling of minority domestic violence victims as nuisances and as a result punishing them for the conduct of their abusers. This is a heavy burden for a domestic violence victim to bear. A recent case which stemmed from events that took place in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a small town northwest of Philadelphia, attracted nationwide attention to the plight of domestic violence victims in communities with nuisance ordinances.
Lakisha Briggs, an African-American resident of Norristown, Pa, was afraid to call the police to her rental unit when her live-in boyfriend was abusing her. Her fear was based on a Norristown Municipal Code, which states that landlords are responsible for the “disorderly behavior” of their tenants. Under the ordinance, disorderly behavior includes “domestic disturbances that do not require that a mandatory arrest be made.” More than three calls to the same rental unit for domestic disturbances can result in a landlord being forced to evict their disorderly tenant. Based on the ordinance in effect at the time, Ms. Briggs, after being beaten with a broken ashtray and then stabbed in the neck, was served an eviction notice. Prior to losing consciousness Briggs begged her neighbor not to call 911 because she had been warned that further calls to police for domestic disturbances might result in her eviction.
Nuisance ordinances like the one in effect in Norristown, in addition to labeling domestic violence victims nuisances, have an additional unintended impact on minorities. They disproportionately impact African-American women. This is due to the fact that African-American women are more likely to be domestic violence victims than Caucasian women. Recent statistics indicate that African-American women experience intimate partner violence at rates significantly higher than Caucasian women. The same appears to be the case for African-American men as compared to Caucasian men. With these statistics in mind, if nuisance ordinances remain in place, minority women and men all over the country are at greater risk for ending up in situations like Ms. Briggs, abused and facing eviction as a result.
Luckily, Ms. Briggs’ situation attracted the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union. A complaint was filed on behalf of Ms. Briggs against Norristown in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The complaint alleges that Norristown’s ordinance violated Ms. Briggs’ constitutional rights, including her right to procedural and substantive due process. Nuisance ordinances like the one in place in Norristown threaten citizens’ fundamental right to call the police for help in situations where domestic violence is involved. We can only hope that Ms. Briggs’ case will result in the removal of domestic violence disturbances from the list of eviction worthy offenses in Norristown, PA. Furthermore, the pending lawsuit hopefully will result in a wave of similar changes to the nuisance ordinances in effect in other jurisdictions. Finally, I sincerely hope that the attention brought to Ms. Briggs’ case will result in widespread education, especially for police officers, about domestic violence. The last thing a victim needs is to feel like a nuisance or a burden when they call for help.
The opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Widener Journal of Law, Economics & Race.
Sandra Park, Shut Up or Get Out: PA City Punishes Domestic Violence Victims Who Call the Police, available at https://www.aclu.org/blog/womens-rights-lgbt-rights-racial-justice-criminal-law-reform/shut-or-get-out-pa-city-punishes Shut Up or Get Out: PA City Punishes Domestic Violence Victims Who Call the Police.
American Bar Association, Domestic Violence Statistics, available at http://www.americanbar.org/groups/domestic_violence/resources/statistics.html.
Josh Sugarmann, Black Women Face a Greater Risk of Domestic Violence, available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/josh-sugarmann/black-women-face-a-greate_b_4157659.html.
Anna Stolley Persky, A Call for Help an Ordinance That Evicts Tenants for Seeking Police Aid Is Putting Abused Women Out on the Street, ABA J., September 2013.
Erik Eckholm, Victims’ Dilemma: 911 Calls Can Bring Eviction, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/17/us/victims-dilemma-911-calls-can-bring-eviction.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.