American Civil Liberties Union chapter the ACLU of Pennsylvania on Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit against the borough of Norristown for what they say is an unconstitutional municipal ordinance punishing tenants and landlords for repeated police responses to properties.
The legal challenge, which is also being argued by the law firm of Pepper Hamilton, LLP, was brought forth on behalf of domestic violence victim Lakisha Briggs, who was allegedly threatened with eviction after she requested police protection from her abusive ex-boyfriend.
According to the complaint, landlords are under Norristown law encouraged to evict tenants when police are called to a property three times in four months for "disorderly behavior."
That includes responses to incidents of domestic violence, the ACLU said.
"When a city penalizes a woman for requesting help for domestic violence, the system is broken," senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project Sandra Park said in a statement.
"Laws that stop tenants from calling the police are unconstitutional and can actually put lives at risk."
After learning of the ordinance, Briggs became reluctant to call police during violent incidents – including one in which her ex-boyfriend attacked her with a brick – because she feared losing her apartment.
"I was shocked to find out that reaching out to the police for protection could instead lead to eviction for me and my family," Briggs said in a statement.
"Nobody should have to fear losing their home when they call for help."
During one particularly brutal attack in June 2012, Briggs' ex-boyfriend allegedly bit and tore her lip, beat her in the head with a glass ashtray and stabbed her in the neck with broken glass.
Briggs still didn't call police for fear of being evicted, according to the complaint, but neighbors contacted the authorities.
The suit states Briggs was airlifted to the nearest hospital due to the severity of her injuries, but the city of Norristown still threatened her with forcible removal from her home.
Briggs' attorneys intervened and Norristown repealed the ordinance.
The city several weeks later enacted a second, virtually identical law.
Cites across the country have similar provisions on the books, according to the complaint.
Though Briggs has found alternate housing and secured an order of protection against her ex-boyfriend, she still lives in fear of requesting assistance and being evicted, especially because she's mother to a 3-year-old daughter, according to the ACLU.
"Families struggling to escape from abuse should at least be able to rely on law enforcement to serve and protect them," ACLU of Pennsylvania staff attorney Sara Rose said in a statement.
"No one should have to endure what Lakisha and her family went through."