NORRISTOWN, Pa. - The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and the law firm of Pepper Hamilton LLP filed a federal lawsuit today challenging an unconstitutional municipal ordinance that punishes innocent tenants and their landlords for requesting police assistance. The challenge was filed on behalf of a domestic violence victim who faced eviction from her home after requesting police protection from an abusive ex-boyfriend.
The Norristown ordinance penalizes landlords and encourages them to evict their tenants when the police are called to a property three times in four months for "disorderly behavior," including responding to incidents of domestic violence. Lakisha Briggs was threatened with eviction under this policy after she called the police for protection from her abusive ex-boyfriend. Briggs became reluctant to call the police for future incidents, including one in which her ex-boyfriend attacked her with a brick. When neighbors called the police for a final attack that resulted in Briggs being airlifted to the hospital, the city threatened her with forcible removal from her home.
"I was shocked to find out that reaching out to the police for protection could instead lead to eviction for me and my family," said Briggs, who lives with her three-year-old daughter. "Nobody should have to fear losing their home when they call for help."
After Briggs was warned of the ordinance, her ex-boyfriend showed up at her apartment demanding to be let in. She could not call the police for fear of being penalized. In June 2012, he brutally attacked her by biting and tearing her lip, striking her in the head with a glass ashtray, and stabbing her in the neck with the broken glass. Briggs still did not call the police for fear of being evicted. A neighbor had to call the police to have Briggs transported by helicopter to the nearest hospital due to the seriousness of her injuries.
After her attorneys intervened, Norristown repealed the ordinance. But only a few weeks later, the city enacted a second ordinance that was virtually identical to the first. Cities across the country have similar ordinances on the books.
"When a city penalizes a woman for requesting help for domestic violence, the system is broken," said Sandra Park, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "Laws that stop tenants from calling the police are unconstitutional and can actually put lives at risk."
Briggs has since found alternate housing and secured an order of protection against her ex-boyfriend. But she still lives in fear of requesting assistance and being evicted with her young daughter.
"Families struggling to escape from abuse should at least be able to rely on law enforcement to serve and protect them," said Sara Rose, staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "No one should have to endure what Lakisha and her family went through."