Pa. lawsuit: Renters fear eviction over 911 calls
Three strikes law threatens renters with eviction if they call 911 three times within four months
By Maryclaire Dale
PHILADELPHIA--Last summer, Lakisha Briggs' ex-boyfriend, who was living with her, allegedly smashed an ashtray across her face, then stabbed her in the neck with the broken glass. She was airlifted to a Philadelphia hospital.
Briggs had let him move in after a jail stint for a previous attack because she'd been afraid to call police when he showed up at her door. Not necessarily because of the threat of violence, but because one more call to 911 and Briggs knew she would lose her home, a tidy row house she rented in Norristown for herself and her 3-year-old daughter.
Norristown has what's called a three strikes law, which threatens renters with eviction if they call 911 three times within four months. Their landlords lose their rental license under the ordinance, which is designed to promote safe neighborhoods in the gritty suburb.
"Every strike has a chilling effect on whether you're going to make that outreach (to police) ... and incur that strike," said lawyer Sandra Park of the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project in New York.
Park has been monitoring similar laws around the country, which are often aimed at addressing drug activity or reducing nuisance calls to 911. The ACLU filed a test case on behalf of Briggs that challenges the constitutionality of such ordinances. Federal court arguments are set for this month in Philadelphia.
"I felt like I was being punished for being assaulted," Briggs, a 34-year-old nursing assistant, said Friday.
Robert DeDomenicis, who represents Norristown in the case, declined to comment last week. The New York Times first reported on the lawsuit.
According to the town's court brief, police were called to Briggs' home 10 times in the first five months of 2012, often over arguments with her 21-year-old daughter and the ex-boyfriend, who were sometimes arrested. He is back in jail after a conviction for attacking Briggs.
Some claim the law is aimed at reducing police budgets. The borough says that's "an oversimplification ... which fails to take into consideration the health, welfare and safety of all neighbors who live in proximity to a disorderly house. Everyone has the right to peaceful enjoyment of their property."
The borough also said it had tried to work with Briggs and landlord Darren Sudman by giving her time to get a restraining order and keep her home.
Sudman said he considered Briggs a good tenant.
"I enjoyed living there. I lived there for about a year and a half before anybody even knew I was on the block," Briggs said. "It was a new house, a new start for me and my little one."
But she eventually moved out rather than face eviction.
The lawsuit alleges that the ordinances disproportionately affect women, since they are more often the victims of domestic violence, and that the federal Violence Against Women Act protects their housing rights.
The borough, in its brief, said it had agreed to restore Sudman's rental license and suspend all action against Briggs before the litigation began, and has not been enforcing the ordinance this year while city officials review it.
Briggs now lives in another rental unit. But she recently chose not to call 911 to report a problem she witnessed.
"I understand what the concept of (the law is), but I think that they need to really sit down and re-evaluate it," she said. "To me, there's a difference between being a nuisance, as opposed to someone really needing help."
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