Human Rights

Meet the Pennsylvania City That Evicts Domestic Violence Victims For Calling the Cops

The law disproportionately affects women and racial minorities.


In Norristown, Pennsylvania, domestic violence victims get kicked out of their homes for calling the cops too many times.

More specifically, a municipal ordinance from this backwards town encourages landlords to evict tenants who call for police assistance, even in cases of domestic assault. The ACLU is challenging that ordinance on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment, and also disproportionately affects women and people of color.

The ACLU filed its lawsuit on behalf of Lakisha Briggs, who was threatened with eviction for the first time on May 23, 2012, weeks after police officers responded to a third domestic violence call at her house. In this particular incident, her abuser had “chased Ms. Briggs down the alley with a brick and followed her to her house, where he attacked her.”

"You are on three strikes. We're gonna have your landlord evict you," officers told Briggs after apprehending her ex-boyfriend, according to the lawsuit. After a judge refused to force Briggs out of her home, Norristown revoked her landlord’s license and tried to evict her. According to court documents, the ACLU came to Briggs’ defense and stopped the eviction, compelling the city to repeal the ordinance in question. But just two weeks later, the city passed a nearly identical law.

Now, the ACLU is challenging the latest version of Norristown’s “disorderly behavior” ordinance, which fines landlords and evicts tenants if someone requests police assistance at a property three times or more in four months. The suit claims the law violates Briggs’ First Amendment right to petition the government, which includes calling for police assistance. The ACLU also claims violations of the 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.”

In Ms. Briggs’ case, a victim of domestic assault refrained from calling the police because she did not want to lose her home. After her “first strike,” it was her a family and an unknown neighbor who called the authorities, including a case in which Briggs’ abuser stabbed her in the neck with a shard of glass. Briggs’ ex-boyfriend did a brief stint in jail, but she was stuck in a bind when he returned:

She let her abuser stay because she felt intimidated and worried that he would harm her or her three year old daughter if she tried to do anything to force him out, and she knew that she could not call the police for help without risking eviction.

As the ACLU notes, Norristown is not the only city “nuisance ordinances” or “crime free ordinances” that suppress the rights of domestic violence victims. Professors from Harvard and Columbia looked at similar laws in Milwaukee, finding that “Nearly a third of all [nuisance] citations were generated by domestic violence.” The study, published in the American Sociological Review, also found that “properties in black neighborhoods disproportionately received citations, and those located in more integrated black neighborhoods had the highest likelihood of being deemed nuisances.”

Lakisha Briggs seeks temporary immunity from Norristown’s “disorderly behavior” ordinance, damages, legal fees and a declaratory judgment deeming the ordinance unconstitutional.

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Steven Hsieh is an editorial assistant at AlterNet and writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @stevenjhsieh.