Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Pepper Hamilton have
filed a federal lawsuit in Philadelphia against a Montgomery County municipality challenging an allegedly unconstitutional local ordinance that punishes tenants and landlords for requesting police assistance.
The complaint against Norristown Borough takes issue with the municipal ordinance that penalizes landlords and encourages them to evict tenants when police officers are called to a property three times in four months for disorderly behavior such as domestic violence.
The named plaintiff in the case, Lakisha Briggs, was threatened with eviction under the policy after requesting police assistance from an abusive ex-boyfriend.
The plaintiff eventually became reluctant to call the authorities due to the ordinance, which eventually put her in danger; her ex-boyfriend, at one point, went to her residence and attacked her with a brick, the complaint states.
Neighbors eventually contacted police in response to another attack on Briggs, one that ended with the plaintiff being airlifted to the hospital.
It was at that point that the borough threatened to forcibly remove her from her home.
“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 released by her lawyers. “Nobody should have to fear losing their home when they call for help.”
One incident between Briggs and her ex-boyfriend highlighted in the lawsuit occurred in June 2012, when the man “brutally attacked her by biting and tearing her lip, striking her in the head with a glass ashtray, and stabbing her in the neck with the broken glass,” according to a release from the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which is also representing the plaintiff.
Still, Briggs refused to call the police at that point because of her knowledge of the ordinance, and fear that she would be kicked out of her home.
Only after Briggs’ attorneys intervened in the matter did the borough repeal its ordinance, according to the ACLU. A few weeks later, however, borough officials enacted a second, nearly identical ordinance.
Other municipalities across the country have similar, allegedly harmful and unconstitutional ordinances on the books, the ACLU stated.
“When a city penalizes a woman for requesting help for domestic violence, the system is broken,” said Sandra Park, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, in a statement issued by the civil rights organization. “Laws that stop tenants from calling the police are unconstitutional and can actually put lives at risk.”
Sara Rose, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, piggybacked on Park’s comments, stating that families who struggle to escape abusive situations should at least be able to rely on law enforcement to protect them.
“No one should have to endure what Lakisha and her family went through,” Rose said.
In the complaint, Lakisha seeks damages relating to injuries suffered due to the defendant’s unconstitutional enforcement of the old ordinance, and seeks to have a judge enjoin the municipality from enforcing the new ordinance that was crafted after the repeal of the other one.
Aside from the borough, the other defendants named in the lawsuit are David R. Forrest, the former Municipal Administrator for Norristown; Robert H. Glisson, the interim municipal administrator; Russell J. Bono, the former borough police chief; Willie G. Richet, the interim Norristown police chief; and Joseph E. Januzelli, Norristown’s municipal code manager.
The lawsuit contains various counts relating to constitutional violations.