Public nuisance

From Slate
By Dahlia Lithwick
September 26, 2013

Lakisha Briggs was a 34-year-old single mom living in the suburbs of Philadelphia in subsidized rental housing. Her boyfriend had attacked her repeatedly in her home, and the police had been called on several occasions to intervene—10 times in the first five months of 2012 alone, according to her legal filings. But because an ordinance in Norristown, Pa., says that a tenant who makes three 911 calls within four months can be evicted and that tenant’s landlord could have his or her rental license suspended, Briggs did not call the police on the night of June 23, 2012, when the same boyfriend hit her in the head with a glass ashtray then stabbed her in the neck with a piece of broken glass. The police had already warned her that she was on her third strike after their last visit. So she didn’t make the call and—just before she passed out—Briggs begged a neighbor not to do so on her behalf.

The neighbor did call the cops, and Briggs was airlifted to a nearby trauma center. The boyfriend went to prison for the assault. Then police served Briggs’ landlord with a notice that said if she and her 3-year-old weren’t evicted within 10 days, he’d lose his rental license. Meet the new face of disorderly conduct.

Last April the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and Briggs’ lawyer sued the borough of Norristown on behalf of Briggs, arguing that its disorderly behavior ordinance—and hundreds of similar laws around the country—unconstitutionally punish protected First Amendment speech, fall most heavily of victims of domestic violence, and recast those victims as a public nuisance. Last week 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. The Briggs suit is being watched by civil rights advocates around the country.

Norristown Municipal Code No. 245-3 makes landlords responsible for their tenants’ “disorderly behavior.” The idea animating this and hundreds of similar laws in big cities and “blighted” suburbs is that landlords should be deputized to help weed out drug dealers and other violent and dangerous renters to create crime-free neighborhoods. Under the original Norristown ordinance, disorderly behavior was a remarkably capacious category that included “domestic disturbances that do not require that a mandatory arrest be made.” The police had sole authority to decide what constituted disorderliness. 

Norristown officials argue that the purpose of the disorderly behavior ordinance is to promote peaceful neighborhoods and discourage frivolous calls to the police. That certainly sounds nice. 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 asking the landlords of rental units—from which the majority of 911 calls will originate—to police their tenants is profoundly problematic. Landlords have no better idea of what really happens in their tenants’ apartments than the cops do, and pressing them to either turn on renters who are domestic violence victims or suffer the consequences themselves is proving disastrous.

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What happens when calling 911 could cost you your home.