Lakisha Briggs of Norristown PA was threatened with eviction after requesting police protection from an abusive ex-boyfriend in 2012. She was targeted for eviction under the "three strikes ordinance," a part of the Norristown municipal code aimed at landlords whose tenants are the source of three police calls in four months for any report of "disorderly conduct," which includes domestic violence.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Pepper Hamilton LLP recently filed a federal case against the borough of Norristown and the police chiefs and municipal officials involved on Ms. Briggs' behalf.
Ms. Briggs, who lives with her three year old daughter, said "I was shocked to find out that reaching out to the police for protection could instead lead to eviction for me and my family," in an ACLU press release. "Nobody should have to fear losing their home when they call for help."
After being warned by the police about the "three strikes ordinance," Ms. Briggs, as noted in the complaint, "was so terrified she would lose her home … that she refrained from calling the police during an incident in which she was brutally attacked and almost killed by her former boyfriend." In this final incident, her ex-boyfriend broke a large glass ashtray against her head, and later stabbed her in the neck with one of the glass shards.
Her neighbors eventually called the police, after hearing the disturbance. This likely saved her life, and Ms. Briggs was flown in a trauma helicopter to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital for emergency medical care.
However, the phone call of her neighbors counted as another strike against Ms. Briggs, and the borough of Norristown moved to force her landlord to evict her right as she returned home from the hospital. This effort was against the wishes of her landlord, who found Ms. Briggs to be a dependable tenant who always paid her rent on time. The district justice ruled in Ms. Brigg's favor, allowing her to remain in her apartment as long as she paid rent and covered her landlord’s legal fees.
However, the police and municipal officials remained extremely determined to evict Ms. Briggs even after the District Justice ruled against her eviction. They claimed to have an "independent right" to revoke her landlord’s rental license and remove Ms. Briggs for trespassing.
Sandra Park, one of Ms. Brigg's lawyers with the ACLU, wrote in a blog entry: "These laws violate tenants' First Amendment right to petition their government, which includes the right to contact law enforcement. They also violate the federal Violence Against Women Act, which protects many domestic violence victims from eviction based on the crimes committed against them, and the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex."
Ms. Briggs was not in fact, evicted, and has since moved to a new location with a new landlord. Even though she was not evicted, the law was used to silence her and keep her trapped in a violent and deadly situation. This is particularly abhorrent given the strong link between domestic violence and homelessness and the already chronic under-reporting of domestic violence.
After the ACLU threatened a lawsuit in 2012, the Norristown Municipal Council revoked and then replaced the ordinance, changing the forfeiture of the landlord's rental license into a series of increasing fines for the landlord. The Municipal Council believes that this change is sufficient to protect victims of domestic violence from facing eviction.
However, victims of domestic violence would be far from safe under the new ordinance, which will subject landlords to fines when their tenants need protection from domestic violence, and will encourage landlords to terminate the lease themselves.
This merely shifts the burden of conducting the eviction from the municipality of Norristown to the landlord. From the Code of the Municipal Council of Norristown:
This incomplete revision creates incentives to keep open the revolving door from domestic violence to homelessness, even if the municipality itself won't be conducting the evictions. This will still leave battered women at risk of eviction, and will force them to choose between police protection and possible eviction.
Sandra Park from the ACLU notes that Norristown is not the only borough to have laws like this: "Cities and towns across the United States have similar laws, sometimes referred to as nuisance ordinances or crime-free ordinances," that can be used against victims of domestic violence.
This horrific story showcases just how deeply victim blaming is ingrained into our society, our laws, and our law enforcement, particularly for low income women and women of color. This tragically leads to the re-victimization of domestic abuse survivors by police and government officials. Hopefully the lawsuit will bring justice for Ms. Briggs and genuine reform to the Norristown Municipal Code.