If We Could Trust The Government To Take Care Of Us, There Wouldn’t Be Idiotic Laws Like This One

"You have to take it this time, honey, because the law says you're a nuisance if you call the cops again..."

“You have to take it this time, honey, because the law says you’re a nuisance if you call the cops again…”

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.

Here is the ACLU’s account of its client’s plight:

“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!)

Facts: ACLU

Graphic: India Today

14 thoughts on “If We Could Trust The Government To Take Care Of Us, There Wouldn’t Be Idiotic Laws Like This One

  1. The sad thing is, it wouldn’t surprise me if some communities try to make the law less discriminatory by broadening the law to foreclose on homeowners who call the police three times.

  2. The obvious problem is that these ordinances were written too broadly,one would think they were designed to put some of the cost of breaking up wild parties on tenants that keep behaving like idiots and landlords who fail to take action back on them. One would HOPE no one would actually write an ordinance designed to punish abused women for calling the cops.

  3. In Lakisha Briggs’ case, shouldn’t the police be content to accept the fine, and be done with it? Why do they care that she is evicted? The law, as you’ve described it, levies fines – it doesn’t order an eviction. Seems to me to be a very clear violation of due process as well as the 1st Amendment.

      • Exactly. So the quote, “You are on three strikes. We’re gonna have your landlord evict you,” by the cop makes no sense.

        • Riiiight. ‘Cause harassing and fining the landlord for as long as you’re a tenant in his property is totally unlike making him evict you.

          • I don’t see why this is a controversial idea. What I’m saying is that this is all ridiculous and unconstitutional. The law as written doesn’t authorize the police to go evicting people for calling too many times. The landlord, presumably, could not evict, they could just accept the fine. This is police overreach and a violation of due process.

            • The point is that they don’t have to actually evict the tenant directly to still effectively evict them. They _did_ de facto attempt to have her evicted, and apparently did so within the law. The problem here is the ordinance itself, not any specific action the police took in enforcing it.

  4. 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.

    In this case, we do not even have to go that far.

    What we have is an idiotic and foolish interpretation of an otherwise reasonable law. There is no indication that the lawmakers intended for domestic violence to be considered A nuisance, nor that the victims were meant to be subject to eviction.

    The U.S. district court in this case should certify the case to the state court system to ask if this law subjects Lakisha Briggs to eviction.

    • IANAL but I think that’s where the poor wording comes in- various law enforcement friends of mine refer to “domestic disturbance calls” and I believe that, while undoubtedly different from a party, a call about a screaming match or other suspicion of violence is classed as a disturbing/disorderly behavior call. It is a short series of steps, then, to assume that ALL domestic violence calls are classed similarly for ease of processing, and if the law just says “disorderly disturbance calls” then that’s what it means, no matter what…

  5. The best case of foolish laws I have seen is when Dayton, OH got in a rush to ban ‘assault weapons’. In their haste, they banned the semi-automatic pistols their police force used. They were shocked to find that their police officers have to obey the law.

    However, could this have been an attempt to get the domestic abuse victims to leave their abusers? If so, are you suggesting that the government protect the abusive relationship and allow her to continue to go back to the abuse? Is the ACLU fighting to allow her to return to her abusive relationship? Is being in an abusive relationship a state that deserves legal protection against a government bent on breaking it up?

    (this is a devil’s advocate position)

  6. Complete side-note to the discussion, Jack, but I suppose I should point out that my last name is spelled with three instances of the letter “e” and no other vowels.

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