Did you know that many cities and towns across the country have what are called “nuisance ordinances,” “crime-free ordinances,” or “disorderly behavior ordinances,” that subject landlords and tenants to fines when the police respond to a proscribed number of “disorderly behavior” complaints within a designated period of time? Such ordinances specifically include “domestic disturbances” as among the forms of disorderly conduct that be punished under the law.
What are the predictable consequences of such laws? Landlords evict tenants who cause them to be fined…including women who call the police because they are being beaten by their husbands or boyfriends. The laws, therefore, penalize the victims of domestic abuse, and create a powerful disincentive for them to report it, since they must, in effect, choose between a beating and homelessness. They also tend to affect single mothers and those who live in poor neighborhoods.
Wait…what? What idiots would pass such a cruel and stupid law? The answer, unfortunately, is lots of idiots, because elected officials, as a general rule, are wretched at ethics chess, among other skills. They don’t think about the unfair and irresponsible results of their well-meaning, bone-headed, poorly drafted and ill-conceived laws by considering their likely consequences two, three and four moves ahead, which is what ethics chess requires. A law can have unethical and unintended outcomes that render it far worse than whatever it is the measure was intended to address, but determining what those outcomes are takes more care, diligence, intelligence and patience than most of our elected officials can muster.
These “disorderly behavior” laws, for example, which I was blissfully unaware of until today, violate tenants’ First Amendment right to petition their government, the federal Violence Against Women Act, which and the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination based on gender, among other categories. Fortunately, the ACLU is on the job, and recently filed a federal lawsuit in Pennsylvania on behalf a target of one of these awful ordinances.
“Last year in Norristown, Pa., Lakisha Briggs’ boyfriend physically assaulted her, and the police arrested him. But in a cruel turn of events, a police officer then told Ms. Briggs, “You are on three strikes. We’re gonna have your landlord evict you.”…The police threatened Ms. Briggs with eviction because she had received their assistance for domestic violence. Under Norristown’s “disorderly behavior ordinance,” the city penalizes landlords and tenants when the police respond to three instances of “disorderly behavior” within a four-month period. …After her first “strike,” Ms. Briggs was terrified of calling the police. She did not want to do anything to risk losing her home. So even when her now ex-boyfriend attacked her with a brick, she did not call. And later, when he stabbed her in the neck, she was still too afraid to reach out. But both times, someone else did call the police.
“Based on these “strikes,” the city pressured her landlord to evict. After a housing court refused to order an eviction, the city said it planned to condemn the property and forcibly remove Ms. Briggs from her home. The ACLU intervened, and the city did not carry out its threats, and even agreed to repeal the ordinance. But just two weeks later, Norristown quietly passed a virtually identical ordinance that imposes fines on landlords unless they evict tenants who obtain police assistance, including for domestic violence.”
We should all be thankful for the various dedicated non-profit organizations that try to protect us against incursions against our rights and liberty, groups like FIRE, the Innocence Project, the ACLU, and yes, the NRA. There are far, far more power-abusers, incompetent elected officials, terrible laws, corrupt institutions and misguided zealots in our society, however, for these and other noble groups to protect everyone, or even most of us. As a result, we each must protect our own rights, those of our neighbors and those of the most vulnerable among us by taking our own civic obligations seriously. We must pay attention to the specific provisions of ordinances and laws; we must insist on high standards of intellect and character among our elected officials, and we should be wary of the exercise of government and police power as the solution to every problem, because, you see, the people who make and enforce the laws just aren’t that smart or trustworthy.
If they were, the kinds of laws that punished Lakisha Briggs because her ex-boyfriend stabbed her in the neck would never get passed in the first place.
Pointer: Alexander Cheezem (Thanks!)
Graphic: India Today