This post was co-written by Mellissa Withers and Tasfia Jahangir
On September 2011, Rosetta Watson’s ex-boyfriend kicked open the front door of her apartment. He made his way to her bedroom and struck her in her face with a closed fist while she was asleep. Watson reported that he threatened to “kick [her] ass.” On four occasions between 2011 and 2012, she contacted the local police because he had stabbed her in the legs, struck her breasts, shoved her, and choked her. Afterwards, Watson’s city of residence, Maplewood, Missouri, found her a nuisance. Her occupancy permit had been revoked, her new permit was denied for 180 days, and she was effectively banished from the city.
In January 2016, a woman in Lakewood, Ohio was bleeding from her face, had a fractured nose, a concussion, and was severely bruised. She ran to her neighbor’s house for help after the attack from her ex-boyfriend. The neighbor called 911, and the police arrested a man for felonious assault and domestic violence. Three days later, however, the landlord of the property learned that the Lakewood Law Department declared the residence as a nuisance.
In summer 2012, Lakisha Briggs’ ex-boyfriend bit her lip and broke a glass ashtray against her head. He then proceeded to use the broken glass to stab her in the neck. Lakisha lost consciousness but when she regained her senses, she was too afraid to call the police. The police already had warned her that she was already on “three strikes” for previous 911 calls she had made. A neighbor saw her in the streets severely injured and contacted the local police. The city gave her landlord no choice but to evict her.
Although the abusers were punished in all three cases, so were the victims. In several cities across the United States, there is a price to pay for calling 911: eviction from your home. And even victims of domestic violence, much like these three women, are not exempt from this regulation. In fact, they sometimes become prime targets of nuisance ordinances.
What is the basis of nuisance ordinances? A public nuisance has traditionally been defined as “an unreasonable interference with a right common to the general public”, including cases in which “the conduct involves a significant interference with the public health, the public safety, the public peace, the public comfort, and the public convenience.” In theory, nuisance laws are meant to be based in common law. They are a means to address interference with other people’s property rights, ensuring the efficiency of police resources, protecting neighbors from disruptive tenants, helping landlords maintain property, and deterring crime.
The institution of nuisance laws date back to the 1980s, and stem from the widespread hysteria over high crime rates and use of drugs. However, they have been widely used in recent years in cases of domestic violence, essentially punishing victims. Nuisance laws hold private landlords accountable for the behavior of their tenants. Such regulations allow the municipality to suspend or revoke a landlord’s rental license if the police responds to multiple reports of “disorderly behavior” at a residence. Disorderly behavior or nuisances are determined by the discretion of law enforcement. These definitions are vague and broad enough for law enforcement to consider domestic abuse as “disorderly behavior,” as was the case for the three women in Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Repeat instances of such behavior poses a threat of eviction for the tenants, even if they are victims of the incident for which they seek support. In other words, nuisance ordinances can have devastating consequences for victims of abuse, allowing for eviction after they, or anyone else, dials 911 for help. In many cases, abusers who are aware of the regulations also use them to manipulate the victim, threatening to call the police to have the victim evicted. These evictions related to domestic violence are one of the leading causes of homelessness in major cities.
Many cities impose nuisance laws without considering the impact it has on victims of domestic violence. In fact, it has been estimated that 2,000 municipalities across 44 states have instituted nuisance laws. However, this increasing adoption of nuisance laws cannot be linked to an actual reduction of crime. In fact, there is no clear evidence of the efficacy of such regulations in reducing crime. But these laws are often adopted because municipalities believe that they will reduce the demand on law enforcement resources and address recurring problem behaviors. Additionally, evicting “problematic” citizens will lead them to leave the area and increase surrounding property values. And law enforcement sees this as a way to reduce costs of policing by putting the responsibility of maintaining order on property owners.
In the California Law Review, Anna Kastner hypothesizes that such laws are in place partly because of the idea that those who disproportionately use government services should be held accountable for paying for them. However, according to Kastner, this forces the burden of responsibility onto the shoulders of the victim, typifying the assumption that they are responsible for the harm that happens to them, and thus should be financially responsible for upholding their own safety and security.
All three women mentioned above faced eviction under their local nuisance ordinances. However, the threshold for time and frequency of “disorderly behavior” vary, depending on the jurisdiction. For instance, the case of Maplewood, Missouri, where Rosetta Watson resided, as few as two phone calls can qualify you for a hearing, a revocation of your occupancy permit, and even expulsion from the city. Other possible forms of punishment include fines and incarceration. According to Kastner, when such ordinances sway individuals away from seeking the help of the law enforcement, the responsibilities of law enforcement are decentralized and privatized. Consequently, one’s protection becomes an individual responsibility.
To recognize the broader concerns that domestic violence victims face is to understand that the trauma inflicted upon these individuals is not just physical, but also psychological. The threats from the abusers often leave these victims with overwhelming feelings of helplessness. Oftentimes, victims remain in abusive relationships because they fear further physical harm to themselves or their family. Furthermore, they may also be concerned with the negative effects of leaving on the children, such as a lack of financial support. Abusers often promise to reform, guilting the victim into staying. Additionally, abusers usually systematically attack the victim’s self-esteem and self-efficacy, which may influence the victim’s belief in her ability to manage without her abuser. Most incidents of domestic violence go unreported. When compounded with the threat of eviction, fines, or even incarceration, nuisance laws serve as an additional obstacle for victims to reach out and seek help.
Additionally, one of the most dangerous times for a domestic violence victim is when she decides to leave the relationship. This is why victims shouldn’t be discouraged from contacting the police. Victims often live in fear that their abusers may retaliate violently once they end the relationship. During this critical time, they must be able to rely on police response, instead of fearing that they might become homeless for doing so.
Victims of color or who are low income, such as Watson and Briggs, are likely to already experience housing discrimination and limited housing outcomes based on their race and income. With nuisance laws, it becomes even more difficult for these victims to navigate accommodations that may be safe, affordable, and compatible with their needs. Furthermore, in a study of the nuisance laws of 59 cities and small towns, it was found that only four contained an exception for domestic violence victims, disproportionately impacting women of color, and of low income. To put it simply, these women face discrimination on both the systemic level and the individual level. The systemic discrimination stems from our housing system, and the latter results from law enforcement and landlords who are often limited in their understanding of domestic violence.
Although domestic violence is now criminalized in all states, and great strides have been taken to better address the cycle of violence, it is still clear that the criminal justice system cannot always be relied on to protect victims of abuse. Nuisance laws allow perpetrators of violence to more easily exploit the vulnerabilities of those that they abuse. And they lead to severe under-reporting of this crime.
It is crucial that nuisance laws be amended to make an exception for victims of domestic violence, and that police protection is always accessible to these victims. This requires jurisdictions to forgo the mindset that victims should be held accountable for the services they use. Everyone has a right to be protected from violence and to be able to reach out to police for help. It is also vital to consider police violence, discrimination, and the qualifications of individuals in certain occupations to have such power over cases of domestic violence.
Even though Briggs, Watson, and the woman from Lakewood could settle outside of court, many other victims of violence will be forced to grapple with the same issues in the presence of current nuisance laws. These individuals should have access to safety and security, instead of choosing between losing their homes and continuing to experience abuse. It is time to address this discrimination. Nuisance laws lead to severe underreporting of the crime of domestic violence and jeopardize the safety of victims by silencing them. It is time to put an end to these laws.
Mellissa Withers is an associate professor of global health at the University of Southern California.
Tasfia Jahangir is an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California majoring in Psychology and minoring in Public Health and Spanish.