Second assault: Law-abiding crime victims should not face eviction

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Police know better than anyone -- violent behavior cannot be legislated away. In places with "nuisance property" ordinances, well-intentioned laws that are meant to keep the peace can even hurt the victim more than the criminal.

Fortunately, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has filed a federal lawsuit on such a case from Norristown, a city of 34,500 northwest of Philadelphia.

Lakisha Briggs, a nursing assistant, suffered repeat episodes of domestic abuse involving her boyfriend, according to a recent story in The New York Times. When he got drunk and attacked her again in June 2012, leaving a gash on her head and a stab wound in her neck, she implored her neighbor not to call 911 because she feared that she and her 3-year-old daughter would be evicted from their apartment. The reason was Norristown's nuisance property ordinance.

The law, which licenses landlords, was designed to prevent apartments from becoming crime havens and to protect neighborhoods from chronically disruptive households. Under its provisions, the city can pressure landlords to act against tenants if police are called to a rental property three times within four months.

Norristown is not alone on such a law. Other cities around the country have enacted nuisance property ordinances aimed at drug rings and other illegal activity, but no one anticipated the victims of domestic abuse having to endure further pain through evictions triggered by these laws.

The ACLU argues, with good reason, that the Norristown ordinance is unconstitutional because it violates renters' First Amendment rights to petition their government, as in calling the police. It also believes the law violates the federal Violence Against Women Act, which protects domestic violence victims from eviction based on crimes committed against them, and the Fair Housing Act, which bars discrimination based on gender.

In response, Norristown officials said, according to the Times, that police had been called to Ms. Briggs' home 10 times in the first five months of 2012 and that she failed to comply with an instruction to get a protection order against her boyfriend.

Even so, this law treats citizens who rent their homes differently from citizens who own -- and on something as basic and life-essential as being able to call police in an emergency. The ACLU is right to challenge it in court. No one should suffer eviction because they've been a victim of crime.

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