WILKES-BARRE – The city of Wilkes-Barre has agreed to stop enforcing its “one strike and you’re out” ordinance, which illegally authorized city officials to evict tenants immediately and prevent landlords from renting a property for six months if anyone is suspected of illegal activity involving drugs or guns on the premises, including third parties not on the lease.
The agreement is part of a settlement of a January 2015 federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania on behalf of two tenants and three landlords. The tenants had been evicted from their homes after individuals who did not live with them and were not on the lease were accused of illegal drug activity. The landlords’ rental units were shut down for six months after police arrested the tenants for illegal drug or gun activity even though they had no knowledge of the alleged illegal activity.
“I’m happy the ordinance is no longer there,” said Adam Peters, a landlord whose Wilkes-Barre rental property was seized for six months under the ordinance. “It’s unfair to punish innocent tenants and landlords for the actions of other people.”
The settlement also includes an entry of a judgment by the court striking down the one-strike ordinance as unconstitutional, an injunction prohibiting Wilkes-Barre from enforcing the ordinance, and $100,000 in damages.
“We are pleased that Wilkes-Barre has agreed to stop enforcing the one-strike ordinance and to compensate the landlord and tenant plaintiffs who were harmed by it,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU-PA. “The ordinance was part of a disturbing trend of local governments using landlords to police the conduct of their tenants, and we hope this case will discourage other cities from passing similar ordinances.”
The one-strike ordinance permitted city of Wilkes-Barre code enforcement officers to close a rental unit for six months if police suspected illegal drug or gun-related criminal activity in the rental unit, common areas or on the premises. There was no requirement that landlords or tenants had to have any knowledge of the illegal activity or any opportunity to stop it before the unit was closed.
In 2014, the municipality of Norristown agreed to pay a tenant $495,000 to settle a case brought by the ACLU-PA, ACLU Women’s Rights Project, and Pepper Hamilton LLP challenging Norristown’s ordinance that required landlords to evict tenants after three calls to the police to a property within four months. The tenant, Lakisha Briggs, had been threatened with eviction after she requested police protection from her abusive ex-boyfriend on multiple occasions.
The plaintiffs are represented by Witold Walczak and Sara Rose of the ACLU-PA and David Fine and Amy Groff of K&L Gates’ Harrisburg office.
More about the case, including a copy of the complaint, can be found at: www.aclupa.org/peters