Nuisance Law Pressures Landlord To Boot Domestic Abuse Victim For Calling 911 Too Often; Tenant Was Targeted By Her Violent Ex-Boyfriend; Local Ordinance Requires Landlord To "Abate" The Problem Or Risk Losing Rental License After Four Or More Calls To Cops
- Nancy Markham’s instinct was to call the police when she was attacked in her home.
That’s exactly what the single mother of two from Surprise, Arizona, did when her ex-boyfriend allegedly choked her, punched her, or threatened her with weapons on multiple occasions between March and September 2014, according to legal documents describing the incidents. He often fled before the police responded. But in September, Markham received a different response to her 911 calls: an eviction notice.
“The police contacted my property manager because I’d called the police too many times,” says Markham, who spoke to reporters during a media call in August. “I’d never heard of this law before.”(1)
Markham was referring to a local “nuisance law” that targets housing units that call 911 four or more times in a month to report a crime, or are the location where two or more crimes take place. Once the city identifies a housing unit as a nuisance and informs the landlord, he or she must ensure the conditions cease or risk losing the business license. Getting rid of the nuisance usually means getting rid of the tenant.(2)
Cities across the U.S. have enacted similar nuisance laws, generally to cut down on the volume of 911 calls. The idea is that by penalizing people who dial in repeatedly, police departments can avoid wasted time and more efficiently fight crime. But sometimes people frequently call 911 because they frequently endure criminal activity. This is especially true with victims of domestic abuse, some of whom have been thrown out of their homes by such laws.
And that’s spurring legal battles around the country to turn the tide against this type of ordinance.
- These laws aren’t just an Arizona or Pennsylvania phenomenon(3). [ACLU attorney Sandra] Park says that in addition to those states the ACLU has worked to challenge or raise awareness about them in Iowa, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York, and Wisconsin. There’s no comprehensive list of nuisance laws, though, because it’s hard to systematically identify them without sifting through every city’s local ordinances. And there are a lot of cities in America.
“Without really trying we’ve documented hundreds of them,” Park says.
(2) In Markham's case, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city of Surprise this past August, arguing that the arbitrary numerical limit on calls to the police denied Markham her 1st Amendment right to petition the government and 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection, the story states.
Last month, the Arizona district court issued a preliminary injunction to stop enforcement of the nuisance ordinance until the case is resolved or the city amends the law in a way that addresses the problem, CityLab reports. Sergeant Tim Klarkowski of the Surprise Police Department confirmed to CityLab that the ordinance is under review with the legal team, and that potential revisions could be on their way.
(3) See Victims’ Dilemma: 911 Calls Can Bring Eviction, where Norristown, Pennsylvania renter Lakisha Briggs was subjected to an eviction attempt after she got flown by helicopter to the hospital with a four-inch stab wound in her neck. The story states that her violent ex-boyfriend did the stabbing, but it was her apartment, so the law considered her the nuisance. The ACLU sued ocn her behalf and won, spurring statewide legislation in Pennsylvania to protect tenants who need to call 911 in an emergency, according to the story. Note that after the final 911 call (which was made by a neighbor), Norristown officials reportedly instructed Briggs' landlord to evict her within 10 days or lose his rental license.