PHILADELPHIA — A federal judge on Thursday ordered a trial to decide whether towns can force the eviction of tenants who make too many 911 calls, a national test case pitting free speech rights against community safety concerns.
U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno said he expects the “complex and novel” case to reach a federal appeals court.
The American Civil Liberties Union believes the laws endanger domestic violence victims and violate their free-speech rights. The group’s Women’s Rights Projects had been looking for a test case, and found one in nursing assistant Lakisha Briggs, a single mother living in a rowhouse in Norristown under a federal subsidized rent program.
An ordinance in the Philadelphia suburb fines landlords and orders them to evict tenants who make three 911 calls within four months. Norristown officials say the laws are designed to promote peaceful neighborhoods and discourage nuisance calls.
After a series of police calls involving arguments with her 21-year-old daughter and others, Briggs was afraid to call police during an attack by an ex-boyfriend last year. A neighbor eventually called, over Briggs’ protests, and the severely injured Briggs was airlifted to a hospital.
“This woman was being battered in her home and was silenced,” lawyer Peter M. Smith, a private lawyer working with the ACLU, argued Thursday.
At the hearing, Robreno denied the township’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, but he also rejected the ACLU’s bid for a temporary injunction, since city officials have agreed not to pursue any action against Briggs through her landlord. The landlord, Darren Sudman, supports Briggs and calls her a good tenant, although she has since moved.
“I felt like I was being punished for being assaulted,” Briggs told The Associated Press last month.
Hundreds of communities around the country have passed similar tenant rules, according to the ACLU.
The lawsuit alleges the ordinances disproportionately affect women, since they are more often the victims of domestic violence, and that the federal Violence Against Women Act protects their housing rights.
Norristown officials amended its ordinance in December to give landlords a chance to appeal any three-strikes fines in court. And the city said it hasn’t been enforcing the code this year, given the lawsuit. But it believes the law is both fair and valuable.
“They’re trying to preserve the peaceful enjoyment of the neighborhood,” lawyer Robert P. DiDomenicis argued Thursday. “These restrictions are not onerous.”
According to court papers, police were called to Briggs’ home 10 times in the first five months of 2012. The ex-boyfriend is back in jail after a conviction for attacking her.
Norristown’s revised ordinance grants exceptions for certain true emergencies, but is meant to address disorderly conduct, DiDomenicis said. It also provides landlords the right to appeal the police fine.
But the ACLU believes police have too much discretion to decide what constitutes a danger versus a disturbance. And while landlords may appeal, the tenants who ultimately face eviction have no such right. Robreno himself wondered if landlords wouldn’t take the easy way out.
“Instead of challenging the strikes, he’ll just get rid of the tenant?” the judge asked Smith.
“That’s right,” Smith said.
The case is expected to go to trial late next year.