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Published: Saturday, 8/31/2013


Second assault

Police officers know better than anyone else that violent behavior cannot be legislated away. In places with “nuisance property” ordinances, well-intended laws that are meant to keep the peace can hurt the victim more than the criminal.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit in such a case from the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown. Lakisha Briggs, a nursing assistant, suffered repeated episodes of domestic abuse involving her boyfriend, the New York Times reported.

He got drunk and attacked her again in June, 2012, leaving a gash on her head and a stab wound in her neck. Yet she implored her neighbor not to call 911 because she feared that she and her 3-year-old daughter would be evicted from their apartment.

Norristown’s nuisance property ordinance, which licenses landlords, was designed to prevent apartments from becoming crime havens and to protect neighborhoods from disruptive households. Under its provisions, the city can pressure landlords to act against tenants if police are called to a rental property three times in four months.

Other cities have enacted similar nuisance property ordinances aimed at drug rings and other illegal activity. But no one anticipated that victims of domestic abuse would have to endure further pain through evictions triggered by these laws.

The ACLU argues, with good reason, that the Norristown law is unconstitutional because it violates renters’ First Amendment rights to petition their government, as in calling the police. The ACLU also believes the law violates the federal Violence Against Women Act, which protects domestic-violence victims from eviction based on crimes committed against them, and the Fair Housing Act, which bars discrimination based on gender.

Norristown officials responded, the Times said, that police were called to Ms. Briggs’ home 10 times in the first five months of 2012, and that she failed to comply with an instruction to get a protection order against her boyfriend. Even so, this law treats citizens who rent differently from citizens who own homes — on something as basic as being able to call police in an emergency.

The ACLU is right to challenge it in court. No one should suffer eviction because he or she is a victim of crime.

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