PA closer to protecting crime victims from nuisance laws


By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

The state House has approved legislation barring municipalities from penalizing residents or landlords for calling police to their properties.

Lawmakers want to avoid the “unintended consequences” resulting from ordinances such as one in Norristown, which affect victims of domestic violence who call 911. The House passed the bill 197-0, sending it to the state Senate for consideration.

On June 23, 2012, Lakisha Briggs’ ex-boyfriend used a shard of glass to stab her in the neck. The attack was the culmination of a pattern of domestic abuse, some of which went unreported.

Briggs feared eviction under Norristown’s three-strike ordinance, according to a federal lawsuit. State Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, introduced the legislation.

“The House vote (Tuesday) was a strong vote both for victims of crime and for civil liberties,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “The people have a fundamental right to contact the police in an emergency. The House stood for that concept today in passing this bill.”

EMERGENCY ACTION: A 2012 domestic assault in Norristown, Pa., has prompted one lawmaker to target nuisance ordinances.

Norristown’s ordinance allowed the borough to penalize a tenant who called for police assistance three times in four months. After police twice responded to her home for incidents involving her ex-boyfriend, Briggs, fearing eviction, decided not to call when he showed up again, according to her lawsuit.

He attacked Briggs again, leaving her bleeding with a large gash on her neck. She still didn’t call police; a neighbor did, according to the lawsuit.

The ACLU sued Norristown on Briggs’ behalf in April.

“I hope that municipalities do not intend for victims to be negatively impacted by these ordinances, but that’s the reality and that’s the situation in our Norristown lawsuit,” said Andy Hoover, legislative director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Norristown has rescinded its ordinance and replaced it with a similar law that allows for escalating fines against landlords of problem properties.

Norristown’s administrator, Crandall Jones, who was not in the position when the ordinance was enacted, did not return a message seeking comment. Neither did Borough Council President William Caldwell.

Councilwoman Linda Christian described the second iteration of the three-strike ordinance as an attempt to clear up the law.

“I know that when we developed the ordinance it was never written where it would penalize or further victimize individuals involved in domestic violence,” Christian said.

About 23 other Pennsylvania municipalities have ordinances similar to Norristown’s, says a news release from the ACLU, citing the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Wilkes-Barre has fallen under scrutiny in recent months for its controversial one-strike ordinance, which allows it to shutter a rental unit for six months if it’s the scene of drug or weapons violations.`

Drew McLaughlin, municipal affairs manager for Wilkes-Barre, said the city usually uses its ordinance after police investigate a narcotics or weapons offense, not when people report an emergency.

“We don’t want to deter anybody from calling 911,” he said. “It’s about responding to an issue that’s unaddressed by an owner or a landlord.”

Critics of the measure say it violates due-process rights.

Stephens pointed out the narrowly tailored bill doesn’t aim to stop municipalities from enforcing ordinances in cases that don’t involve the victim of abuse or crime, or in emergencies.

“Municipalities will still retain the right to go after true nuisance properties and true nuisance property owners,” Stephens said. “They just will not be able to penalize someone who’s the victim of a crime or domestic violence.”

Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

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