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June 6, 2013: NHLP Joins Amicus Brief in Challenging Nuisance Ordinances As Applied to Survivors

On May 31, 2013, NHLP joined twenty-one housing organizations, domestic violence shelters and women’s rights programs in an amicus brief submitted by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV), in support of Lakisha Briggs, a domestic violence survivor, in Briggs. v. Borough of Norristown.

Ms. Briggs challenged nuisance ordinances enacted by the Borough of Norristown, Pennsylvania, alleging that the ordinances violated a number of state and federal laws by creating significant obstacles for survivors to protect themselves. The complaint included claims under the First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Equal Protection, Fair Housing Act, Violence Against Women Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

Norristown’s original nuisance ordinance stipulated that landlords would have their rental licenses revoked if three instances of “disorderly behavior” were reported by the police within a two-month span. The ordinance not only granted the Chief of Police sole discretion in determining whether “disorderly behavior” existed, but also explicitly stated that “domestic disturbances” would be considered such behavior. After Ms. Briggs obtained legal counsel to challenge the original ordinance, Norristown repealed it and enacted a subsequent ordinance that replaced license revocations with large fines, but retained similar provisions regarding “disorderly behavior.” The new ordinance also strongly encourages landlords to include language in their leases in which convictions of “disorderly behavior” would constitute a breach of the lease.

The amicus brief argues that these ordinances create substantial barriers for domestic violence survivors, who are less likely to report acts of abuse to the police because they fear punishment either in the form of housing evictions or other civil penalties. Penalizing survivors for seeking police assistance in violent incidents creates a “chilling” effect on constitutional rights and violates a number of established housing laws, such as the Fair Housing Act and Violence Against Women Act. In addition, limiting the number of times survivors may contact the police without punishment further perpetuates the continuing violence that is committed against them.

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