Officials say Norristown law punishes domestic-violence victims

Two Pennsylvania legislators will ask Norristown officials to repeal a municipal law that led to a domestic-violence victim being threatened with eviction last year. Reps. Mike Vereb and Todd Stephens, both Montgomery Republicans, will hold a news conference Tuesday where they also will announce plans to introduce legislation that would bar cities from enacting similar laws.

“While I understand the growing challenges Norristown faces with its rental properties because of some activities of its tenants, I believe every tenant should have a clear and conscious right to dial 9-1-1 without the threat of eviction looming over their heads,” Vereb said Monday.

The American Civil Liberties Union last week filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Lakisha Briggs, 33, “challenging an unconstitutional municipal ordinance that punishes innocent tenants and their landlords for requesting police assistance,” the ACLU said in a statement.

Defendants include Norristown and former and current municipality officials. The suit asks for an end of any actions against Briggs’ landlord, a ruling that the current law violates the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments, and unspecified damages.

Norristown officials could not be reached for comment.

The law at the time of Briggs’ troubles with Norristown said municipal officials could revoke landlords’ rental licenses and force the removal of tenants if police responded three times within a four-month period to disorderly conduct reports, including domestic violence incidents. It was up to the police chief to decide what was “disorderly conduct.”

Briggs, who has lived in Norristown since she was 9 years old, faced that three-strikes-and-out possibility after boyfriend Wilbert Bennett, whom she broke up with during the time frame of the incidents, repeatedly came to her rental house in 2012, often intoxicated, and assaulted her.

According to the lawsuit:

The first “strike” came on April 9, after an intoxicated Bennett went to her house and hit her. Police had been to her home four other times before then. “You are on three strikes. We’re gonna have your landlord evict you,” an officer reportedly told Briggs. Bennett was charged with disorderly conduct, public drunkenness and marijuana possession. Briggs was not charged with any crime.

Six days later, Bennett again went to the house and began arguing with the boyfriend of Briggs’ 21-year-old daughter. A neighbor called police that time — those at Briggs’ home didn’t want to risk incurring a second strike. Bennett and the boyfriend were charged with simple assault and reckless endangerment.

Briggs’ landlord later was notified by Norristown that the incident was considered the second strike. At that point, Briggs broke up with Bennett to avoid losing the house.

But Bennett didn’t stay away. On May 2, he was in an alley near Briggs’ home drinking. When he saw Briggs, he chased her with a brick in his hand and attacked her in her house.

Again, it wasn’t Briggs who called police. Someone else did. Nor would she tell officers what had happened because she feared getting the third strike. She was cited for disorderly conduct and fighting; Bennett got the same citations, plus was charged with public drunkenness.

Norristown, without notifying Briggs, began the process to revoke her landlord's rental license and said Briggs would have to leave.

After the landlord said Briggs was a good tenant whom he wanted to keep, then-Norristown administrator David R. Forrest, one of the lawsuit’s defendants, postponed penalizing the landlord and Briggs as long as there were no more calls to police.

Bennett returned in June after serving time in jail for the previous incident. The lawsuit says he intimidated Briggs into letting him stay at her house.

On about June 23, he invited friends over. Later that evening, he attacked Briggs after claiming she had flirted with one of them.

The court document said Bennett tore Briggs’ lip, caused a two-inch gash by breaking a glass ashtray against her head, and stabbed her in the neck with a shard from the ashtray. Again, the lawsuit said, Briggs did not call police. A neighbor did, and Briggs was flown by a helicopter to a hospital.

The landlord, under pressure from Norristown officials, began the eviction proceedings to avoid losing his rental license. The district judge hearing the case gave the municipality the chance to back off forcing Briggs to leave. When Norristown officials insisted, the judge blocked the eviction. Even then, the ACLU said, Forrest told the landlord that if Briggs did not leave, Norristown would revoke the landlord's rental license, condemn the property as unlawful, and remove Briggs for trespassing.

That's when the ACLU got involved, said Sara Rose, staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania and one of Briggs’ attorneys.

In November, the Norristown Municipal Council repealed the ordinance after the ACLU said it was unconstitutional and agreed not to pursue action against Briggs or the landlord. In December, the council enacted a law that changed penalties against the landlord, but left open the possibility that a victim could be evicted.

“Families struggling to escape from abuse should at least be able to rely on law enforcement to serve and protect them," Rose said. “No one should have to endure what Lakisha and her family went through.”

Numerous towns in Pennsylvania and around the country, she said, have similar laws.

Briggs said through the ACLU that, “I was shocked to find out that reaching out to the police for protection could instead lead to eviction for me and my family.”

Stephens, Vereb, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, and representatives form victim-advocacy groups are scheduled to gather Tuesday morning in Norristown to talk about the law.