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This Missouri City Banishes Domestic Violence Survivors for Calling the Police

Nuisance Laws, Domestic Violence
Nuisance Laws, Domestic Violence
Sandra Park,
Former Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Women's Rights Project
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April 7, 2017

In 2012, the city of Maplewood, Missouri ordered Rosetta Watson to vacate her home. But the city wasn’t done punishing Watson yet and also barred her from living anywhere in the city for six months. Her offense? She called the police four times seeking protection from her abusive ex-boyfriend.

Under Maplewood’s local ordinance, more than two calls to police regarding domestic violence within 180 days qualifies as a “nuisance,” as do commission of acts prohibited by federal, state, or local laws at a property. The ordinance does not exempt situations where residents need to call police for help or where they are crime victims. Once Maplewood decides that a nuisance took place, it can revoke the residents’ occupancy permits — which are required to live in Maplewood — and deny new ones for six months, exiling the residents from the city.

Maplewood officials concluded that Ms. Watson should be removed from her home and banished from the city because she made calls for help with domestic violence, even though it was clear from the city’s own records that her ex-boyfriend had physically assaulted her. She was forced to move to St. Louis, where he again attacked her. This time, he broke in and stabbed her in the legs.

Because of her experience in Maplewood, she feared calling the police and instead took herself to the hospital. When the hospital contacted police, she was relieved to learn that law enforcement would not punish her. Her ex-boyfriend was arrested, convicted, and incarcerated. Yet, she suffered the consequences of the nuisance ordinance for years, losing her Section 8 voucher in the process and moving from place to place, unable to secure stable housing.

The ACLU and ACLU of Missouri filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of Ms. Watson against Maplewood, asserting that its ordinance violates fundamental constitutional rights, including the First Amendment right to petition the government for assistance and the rights to travel, equal protection, and due process. We also argue that the ordinance is preempted by the federal Violence Against Women Act. The case follows other suits brought by the ACLU challenging nuisance ordinances in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and Surprise, Arizona, on behalf of domestic violence survivors, resulting in repeals of the local laws and monetary compensation.

When the hospital contacted police, she was relieved to learn that law enforcement would not punish her.

Local nuisance and crime-free ordinances that penalize calls for police service or criminal activity at a rental property often harm domestic violence victims the most, according to researchers, because their abusers may repeatedly target them at their homes. Harvard sociologist and author of “Evicted” Matthew Desmond and his colleague Nicol Valdez found that calls about domestic violence were the third most common reason for a nuisance citation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. An ACLU and Social Science Research Council study of Binghamton and Fulton, New York determined that domestic violence made up the single largest category of criminal activity triggering enforcement of each city’s law. The Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council similarly concluded that Maplewood discriminated in enforcing its law against domestic violence victims, non-white residents, and people with disabilities. And Professor Gretchen Arnold of St. Louis University documented the serious harms to survivors’ health, safety, and economic well-being because of nuisance laws.

Nuisance and crime-free ordinances are popular across the country, but they are deeply unfair, dangerous policies. They punish people for crimes occurring at their homes, often resulting in homelessness and the silencing of residents who need to call 911.

Maplewood’s ordinance is particularly draconian. First, it blames the victims, specifically targeting calls relating to domestic violence. In effect, it requires biased policing of domestic violence by punishing survivors for seeking help, in violation of the Constitution, guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice, and basic morality. On top of that, it exiles survivors from their entire community for exercising their constitutional right to contact their government.

Penalizing people for police calls or crimes in their homes weakens law enforcement, as Norristown, Pennsylvania, realized after it agreed to repeal its ordinance in response to our lawsuit. Its municipal administrator said last year that as a result of the repeal, Norristown now worked more closely with residents to address the underlying domestic violence and other problems that led to police calls, resulting in a drop in crime. Its current police chief also has explained to law enforcement groups across the country that these ordinances undermine effective policing and community relationships. Recognizing the serious consequences of these ordinances, states like Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota enacted laws preventing cities from punishing residents for seeking police or emergency assistance. More states should do the same.

Every city with a nuisance or crime-free ordinance should examine why they have it and how it is being enforced. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, cities bear a heavy burden under the Fair Housing Act in defending local laws that cut off emergency services or threaten people’s housing. Rather than expending scarce municipal resources on enforcing unjust laws, cities like Maplewood should repeal their ordinances and focus on solutions that actually address crime, including domestic violence, in their communities.

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