Bill would ban nuisance laws, allow calls to police

A shocking crime in Norristown has prompted action in Harrisburg.

In June, 2012, Lakisha Briggs' ex-boyfriend stabbed her in the neck with a shard of glass. It was not the first time he showed up to beat her. But Lakisha begged neighbors not to call police, fearing it would trigger eviction proceedings.

Norristown has a three-strike ordinance that allows the borough to penalize tenants who call for police assistance three times in four months.

Briggs survived and Norristown did try to force her from her home. A judge put that on hold and the American Civil Liberties Union is suing.

Lawmakers are also acting. State Representative Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery) authored House Bill 1796 which bans so-called nuisance ordinances. It passed the House unanimously this week.

There is logic behind such ordinances. Calls to police are one way to quantify how much of a nuisance a particular tenant is, and if those calls are too frequent eviction makes sense.

But should domestic violence victims not call 911 when they're in danger?

“Nobody should have to make the choice about whether to call the police in a time of need or face eviction,” said Peg Dierkers, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

According to the PCADV, there are nuisance ordinances in Harrisburg, Lancaster, York and Carlisle that need to be changed. In Harrisburg the language doesn't specifically say 911 calls, but says if a tenant gets two “disruptive conduct reports” a landlord is required to evict.

While she certainly has sympathy for crime victims, councilwoman Eugenia Smith also hears from constituents fed up with nuisance tenants. She defends Harrisburg's ordinance.

“The ordinance we passed is basically if they're playing loud music or fighting in the house or being very disruptive,” said Smith. “None of these legislators that passed that bill lives here in the neighborhood. They should be more considerate of what people are requesting because people in this community were happy we passed that legislation.”

But Stephens, a former Montgomery County prosecutor, says Harrisburg and other communities need to revisit their laws.

“Unfortunately, there are unintended consequences to these ordinances,” Stephens said. “I think the municipalities need to take a look at the ordinances to make sure that they're not penalizing people who legitimately need help and call for it.”

The ACLU says Briggs' civil rights were violated because everyone has a First Amendment right to contact their government. The case is in federal court.

“We're saying when you're in an emergency and you want to contact your government for help, you have a right to do that,” said Andy Hoover of the ACLU.

Hoover says there are also racial undertones to the issue.

“This disproportionately impacts people living in poverty and people of color because these ordinances typically are in urban areas,” he said.

Dierkers has no issue with municipalities going after disruptive residents as long as crime victims aren't ensnared in the net.

“Criminals and criminal activity need to be dealt with,” she said. “A person who's a victim of that criminal or criminal activity should not be evicted from their home.”

The bill is now on to the Senate.


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