Tenants Can Get Evicted for Calling the Police Across New York and Much of the Country

The second time that Laurie Grape called the police during an attack by her then-boyfriend, they told her that a third call would get her evicted. Under a local law in East Rochester, New York, three police responses to the same property within a 12-month period were once grounds for a person to be kicked out of her home. The next time her ex-boyfriend attacked her, Laurie decided to stay silent rather than risk eviction.

Laurie, however, didn’t stay silent for long. In 2010, Grape and another domestic violence survivor settled a lawsuit against East Rochester, resulting in the village changing its so-called "nuisance abatement" law. Unfortunately, similarly harmful ordinances continue to be in force across the state of New York.

Today, a coalition of rights groups called on 11 of these municipalities to repeal their nuisance laws. The New York Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, the Empire Justice Center, and the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence sent letters emphasizing that repeal is necessary because these ordinances violate people’s constitutional and civil rights and undermine community safety.

In June 2017, a New York appellate court ruled for the first time on the constitutionality of these laws. The court struck down the Village of Groton’s nuisance abatement law because it infringed on the First Amendment right to petition the government by punishing tenants for calling the police for help or to report a crime. The court agreed with our amicus brief in the case, emphasizing the chilling effect that such laws can have on people in need of emergency assistance, with domestic violence victims particularly impacted. Similar laws are in effect in at least 35 states. The ACLU has taken them on in more than a dozen, advocating against them in state and local legislatures and successfully challenging them in Arizona, California, and Pennsylvania.

Many of the nuisance ordinances we are targeting — those in Babylon, Cheektowaga, Greece, New Hartford, Rochester, Rome, Schenectady, Troy, Utica, Village of Hempstead, and Yonkers — put victims of crimes at risk of losing housing. The vast majority make no distinction between nuisance behaviors committed by tenants and crimes committed against tenants. Most of the laws also do not require convictions, arrests, or for tenants to be given any notice for the nuisance law to be triggered. That means municipalities can act based on little to no evidence of a crime.

These nuisance ordinances violate free speech, due process, equal protection, and fair housing guarantees. But they aren’t just illegal, they’re bad policy. While cities might intend to prevent crime with these laws, the reality is that these ordinances result in housing instability for already vulnerable individuals and reduce trust between communities and law enforcement.

When tenants are told that calling the police could result in their eviction, they stop reporting crimes or dangerous conditions, making police officers’ jobs more difficult. And nuisance ordinances are not tailored to prevent crime because they often punish landlords and tenants regardless of whether a given crime was committed by someone connected to the property where it took place.

In 2015, the ACLU and the Social Science Resource Council published a report documenting the harms of some of these laws in New York. That report found that in Fulton and Binghamton, properties were frequently designated as nuisances due to domestic violence. In fact, domestic violence made up nearly half of the incidents included in nuisance enforcement warnings issued by the Fulton police.

People experiencing intimate partner violence, as well as anyone else who requires police assistance, should not have to choose between personal security and losing their home.

One of the stories highlighted in that report involved a tenant in Binghamton who was the victim of repeated domestic violence. Police were called by a neighbor to intervene when her boyfriend threw her to the ground and began to choke her and again when he returned to the property in violation of a restraining order. Both incidents were cited as "nuisance conduct" under the city’s ordinance. The landlord responded to the city’s warning letter about these disturbances by promising to evict the tenant.

These laws can also be devastating for people with mental or physical disabilities who may need to access emergency assistance more frequently than others. In 2014, for example, the Village of Groton classified police assistance to a person engaging in self-harm, who had a known history of suicide attempts, as a “general disturbance.” That incident helped get the tenant’s building labeled a "nuisance property." The law has since been invalidated.

People experiencing intimate partner violence, as well as anyone else who requires police assistance, should not have to choose between personal security and losing their home. Keeping these laws on the books can undermine public safety because they create a perverse incentive not to report crime or safety issues to the police.

Our cities, towns, and villages should prioritize protecting communities and preserving housing rights. And they should stop wasting resources on enforcing these unjust laws.

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Anonymous

It is a nuisance. I lived next door to a woman who kept an extremely abusive boyfriend around because he supplied her with drugs. The neighbors called the police on them several times a week for over a year out of concern for the children who were right in the middle of it - we could hear them getting hurt and what sounded like little bodies hitting the wall. She just kept dropping the charges and denying everything because she cared more about the drugs than anything else. Two police officers started threatening to arrest people for calling 911 and said to me "if you call 911 and their isn't a body we will arrest you for 911 abuse." A few days after that call I found out, and saw, that a kids body did hit the wall with force as one of the neighbors saw the kids back which was badly bruised and scratches "so deep you could see the meat". I saw the scratches myself a few days after, Women who will not follow through with the charges are a nuisance in their neighborhoods and are even worse things when it comes to their kids.

Anonymous

Here's the thing, though - abusers usually mess with someone's head before they start physically hurting them. They isolate their victims from family and friends, make their victim think that they need to stay with them for whatever reason (for example, I had an acquaintance that was convinced her jerk boyfriend would die if she left him), and sometimes even make the victim think it's their own fault they're getting hurt. People don't just start hitting their partners, there's a lot of psychological build up beforehand that leads to it. You say she cared about drugs more than her kids, but from what I know of domestic abuse it's possible she was staying with him because of the kids - he could have been telling her "Look at you, you're so messed up, you think you'd be able to take care of kids by yourself? You need me here." The drugs probably became part of why she couldn't leave, but not the way you think - she could have believed her being an addict meant she needed help with the kids, but also couldn't kick the habit because it was how she dealt with the abuse. Obviously I don't know your neighbor's situation exactly, but I do know that people in abusive relationships usually are living in a reality that has been warped by their abuser in order to keep them there. (That's partly why these nuisance laws are so bad - They feed into the abuser's "try to stop this and bad things will happen" rhetoric.) (Also sorry for any typos, I'm typing from my phone.)

Mark G

Let me get this straight:

You’re more worried about your being annoyed than you are about the ability of others to call for help without consequences. So you think the solution in this situation is to let the system revictimize the victims by restricting their First Amendment rights that results in losing their home ?

Wow. You just won the Asshole of The Day Award.

Anonymous

To the person who thinks his neighbor is keeping her abusive boyfriend around because he gives her drugs: what a ridiculous load of assumptions and generalizations you're foisting on us here.

First of all, you're ascribing motivation to another person when you can't possibly know her reasons for staying with this abuser. You haven't the right to make these assumptions. Relationships are complicated. Yes, some people - not always women, by the way - stay with abusive partners, but the reasons are still complex even if the syndrome is often seen. Your nasty reduction of what you saw in your neighbor to this one very uncomplimentary motive says more about you than it does her.

Second, if you see or hear children being harmed and don't call 911, I think that's grounds for revocation of your human being card.

I believe it's illegal for officers to threaten you with arrest for calling emergency services for people being harmed.

If officers really said that to you you should be talking to their superiors and to town hall for clarification. And if that's confirmed, then it's time to call the newspaper and get that news out there.

But I don't think any of what you said is true. I think you are a misogynist trying to justify your unkind opinion of your erstwhile neighbor with ages-old rhetoric dredged up from the bad old days of social darwinism.

If this was really happening the way you represent, child protective services would have taken them from this abusive home.

Anonymous

What manner of human are you?

Anonymous

It was not just a matter of annoying me. All the violence my daughter was exposed to because she heard it and heard about it traumatized her. She was 5! On top of that the woman you are martyring threatened to kill our dogs right in front of my daughter. When she didn't get the reaction she wanted she threatened to kill me in front of my daughter. Then she looked my 5 year old child in the face and threatened to kill her. All because she thought I was the neighbor who got her evicted. I had been trying to but what really got her evicted was her boyfriend starting a fight with a 14 year old girl with a cast on her arm. Adults intervened and he ran off before the police got their. A couple of days later the girl came to my yard where my daughter and other small children were playing. The boyfriend suddenly ran screaming and swearing into the group of young children and started screaming horrible things at that 14 year old. He threatened to harm the 14 year old girl and told her that she wouldn't be able to fight back because she had a cast on her arm. That was the straw that broke the camels back as far as the landlord was concerned. What kind of person am I? The kind that doesn't want that mess in my neighborhood. Nuisance is an understatement.

Anonymous

As for child services, haven't you seen those news stories where child services completely drops the ball and a child gets killed? The child services agency here is a prime candidate for being another of those news stories.

Dr. Timothy Leary

May God bless the American Civil Liberties Union. It's things like this that justify its existence.

Anonymous

I don't think God would bless an organization that is trying to remove Him from existence.

Dr. Timothy Leary

If it weren't for the A.C.L.U. the government could tar and feather people like you and no one would know because you are anonymous.

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