These Laws Force Abuse Victims to Choose Between a Call For Help, and Keeping Their Homes


Nuisance laws, enacted to help establish peace and quiet by weeding out disruptive neighbors, inadvertently create a system in which victims of domestic violence may face eviction for calling the police. A number of states have instituted laws that require landlords to evict renters from "disruptive" households in hopes of creating drug-free, law-abiding neighborhoods. However, these laws, as a recent New York Times article noted, instead threaten the capacity of citizens to call the police when they are in need. This issue particularly affects abuse victims, who live in a third of such properties according to a report published in the American Sociological Review.

Nuisance laws force victims of abuse to face eviction for their own victimization. Though the intention may be to eliminate particularly disruptive households in order to "raise the quality of life in our neighborhoods, reduce the number of police calls for service and hold accountable those property owners that allow nuisance activities to persist" (according to a Bremerton, Wash., law) in practice they allow the police to hold landlords accountable for disruptions, and pressure them to take action if police receive too many calls in too short a time from a single home. If the landlord fails to resolve the problem, they may face punishments including fines or loss of their rental license. As such, many landlords threaten disruptive renters with eviction, or pressure renters simply not to call the police in an emergency. Many eventually evict abuse victims to "fix" the nuisance problem. 

These laws were supposed to suppress crime and drug-related activity by creating consequences for the perpetrators, but the reverse has happened. One third of nuisance citations stem from domestic abuse, which is more than the number of batteries, fights, disorderly conduct charges, and drug-related crimes combined, according to the American Sociological Review report. The police, in order to create a third-party mechanism of enforcement, have made themselves a force working against justice. Not only do these laws enforce stereotypes that blame victims for their abuse, they also explicitly breach a number of protective laws. They violate the First Amendment Right to "petition the government for redress of grievances," as well as the condition of the Violence Against Women Act that protects battered women from eviction. It also ultimately prevents legal action against abusers. Despite good intentions and hopes of creating a self-sustaining third-party enforcement system, nuisance laws have created a mechanism by which justice is undermined and victims are re-victimized. 

The New York Times story told of a Pennsylvania woman, Lakisha Briggs, whose boyfriend returned from jail and forced himself back into her life. Nuisance laws left her with the rock-and-a-hard-place choice between letting him stay and facing eviction. He ultimately assaulted her, yet even as she was about to pass out Briggs begged her neighbor not to call the police. They did, and though her former boyfriend is now incarcerated, officials demanded that her landlord evict her. Thus began an ACLU lawsuit against this ordinance.

Attention to Biggs' story is critical because the reach of nuisance laws are vast. If preventing crime is the goal, we cannot allow these laws to enable it. More importantly, nuisance laws deprive women of their capacity to take action. In an abusive household, the choice to protect oneself is already a difficult and terrifying step. Why would we allow a law to get in the way of a woman's chance to save herself?