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How calling 911 can punish a domestic violence victim

In some cities, nuisance laws force domestic violence victims to decide between calling police and staying in their home

NORRISTOWN, Pa. – For months, Lakisha Briggs lived in fear. When police responded to a call at her home after her boyfriend became violent, she said they warned her: two more calls and there would be trouble.

A nuisance ordinance allowed the city to revoke a landlord’s rental license if tenants called 911 three times, making the home a three-strike property. In turn, landlords threatened tenants who called for help too many times with eviction.

In the weeks that followed, Briggs’ boyfriend would commit his most violent act yet.  

“It got real bad,” Briggs said. “I was hit with a porcelain ashtray on the right side of my head. And then, he took a piece of the ashtray and slit my neck.”

After the warning from police, Briggs was so afraid to call for help she even pleaded for neighbors that night not to call the police out of fear of losing her home. With wounds too grave to ignore, that night she was airlifted to a nearby trauma center.

Facing homelessness, Briggs decided to fight back. She partnered with the ACLU, filing a federal lawsuit against the city in 2013. The following year, Norristown settled, agreeing to pay $495,000 and even repealing its ordinance. 

“I want these municipalities to really understand the danger that they are putting people in,” Briggs said. “Use better judgment when it comes to what a nuisance really is. Because somebody that's fighting for their life is not a nuisance.”

Briggs is not alone. Last month, an ACLU report found that the majority of nuisance ordinance laws in Binghamton and Fulton, New York, disproportionately impact victims of domestic violence.

“We are basically setting the clock back 40 years,” said Sandra Park, a senior attorney for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “These laws are basically saying, ‘Not only are we discouraging you from reporting, but we are going to punish you for it;’ that you can actually become homeless if you report domestic violence too often to the very people we keep telling you to call.”


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