In the city of Maplewood, Missouri, calling 911 to report violence in your home can get you evicted for being a “nuisance.” Rosetta Watson, a survivor of domestic abuse, learned this the hard way after she called police multiple times between September 2011 and February 2012 to report her former boyfriend. In one incident, she has said, he kicked open her front door and attacked her in her bed, punching her in the face.
Watson didn’t know that Maplewood is one of a growing number of cities across the country with a “nuisance law,” also known as a “crime-free” or “disorderly house” ordinance. Under Maplewood’s law, residents can be penalized for calling the police more than two times from the same address within an 180-day period, punished with eviction from their homes or even banishment from the city for up to six months; the law doesn’t differentiate between the sources and victims of the “nuisance activity.” Though supporters of these ordinances say they deter crime and disorderly conduct, opponents argue that their real impact is to punish victims of violence and prevent them from calling for help.
Watson says that’s what happened to her: Evicted from the home she had rented for two years, she moved to St. Louis, where her ex-boyfriend found her and attacked her in July 2012, breaking into her new place and stabbing her in the legs. Even then, Watson says, she was afraid to call the St. Louis police; only when the hospital she’d gone to for treatment contacted law enforcement was her abuser arrested.
On Friday, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on Watson’s behalf, claiming that “the city of Maplewood violated [her] fundamental constitutional rights by enacting and enforcing a law that punishes crime victims merely because they ask for help,” as Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in a press release. Unsurprisingly, nuisance ordinances are especially harmful to—and more likely to be enforced against—communities that already face discrimination in the housing market, such as people of color and people with mental disabilities. The ACLU has taken on these laws before: Its lawyers sued the borough of Norristown, Pennsylvania, in 2013, and the city of Surprise, Arizona, in 2015. In both cases, the plaintiff was a survivor of domestic violence who’d faced eviction, and both suits resulted in repeal of the laws.
But nuisance ordinances seem to be popping up faster than the ACLU can swat them down. Last summer, NPR reported that municipalities in New York, Wisconsin, and Iowa had recently enacted them. Amanda Grieder, a city official in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, told NPR’s reporter that the law was intended to address the problem of police officers being called over and over to the same handful of properties. “In addition to making sure that citizens in our city have the ability to live in neighborhoods free of nuisance activity, we also felt the need to recoup some of the costs of taxpayer-funded services,” she explained. Grieder said the city had recently revised its statute in an effort to avoid targeting crime victims. But its ordinance allows for landlords to be fined hundreds or thousands of dollars for frequent 911 calls from their properties—a strong incentive to address the problem by evicting the tenant, whatever the cause of the calls may be.
That’s what happened to the ACLU’s Norristown plaintiff, Lakisha Briggs, who says her landlord didn’t want to evict her, but told her that he had no choice—the city would fine him $1,000 a day if she stayed. Briggs told NPR that she didn’t even make the final 911 call that put her on the street. She’d been determined not to call again, knowing that she was at risk of hitting her limit. Her abusive boyfriend even used the ordinance against her. “After he found out that I was on my last and final strike, he kind of just like moved into my house,” she told NPR. It was “a really messed up situation,” she said. She wondered, “At this point, what do I do?”
One night, during a fight, Briggs’ boyfriend slit her neck with a broken ashtray, and she lost consciousness, awaking in a pool of her own blood. “The first thing in my mind is, ‘Let me get out of this house’” before a neighbor called 911, she said. “I’d rather them find me on the street than find me at my house like this, because I'm going to get put out if the cops come here.” She made it out the door, where an observer must have dialed for help, because the police arrived, and she was airlifted to the hospital. She learned a few days later that, as she had feared, she would pay for that assistance with her home.
Nuisance laws aren’t the only barrier stopping victims of domestic violence from calling for help. In some parts of the country, police frequently practice “dual arrests,” booking and charging both abuser and victim even if it’s clear which party was the primary aggressor. Nationwide, this occurs in roughly 2 percent of cases of intimate partner violence, but in a recent investigation, ProPublica found that, in Connecticut, the rate of dual arrest is nearly ten times as high. “I can’t stress enough how traumatic it is for women who call the police and end up in the criminal court process,” said Jennifer Lopez, an advocate who works with survivors.
Most recently, reports of domestic violence in Latino communities have dropped precipitously since Donald Trump took office. Undocumented victims fear that calling for help will get them deported—and U.S. citizens or legal residents may also hesitate to bring the police into homes or neighborhoods where friends and family lack secure immigration status. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said in March that reports of rape had declined 25 percent among the city’s Latino population, and reports of domestic violence had fallen by 10 percent, with no such decline among other groups. On Wednesday, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo announced another staggering statistic: Reports of rape are down 42.8 percent among Hispanics in that city as compared to last year, while reports of other violent crimes in the community have fallen 13 percent.
Nationally, the number of people suffering in silence at the hands of an abusive partner may be on the rise. But in Maplewood, Missouri, at least, another nuisance ordinance seems poised to fall. The ACLU’s plaintiff, Watson, says the law cost her “my home, my community, and my faith in police to provide protection.” Now, she says, “I want to make sure that other women in Maplewood do not suffer the way I did.”