22 Aug 2014
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ACLU Targets Norristown Over 'Three Strikes' Ordinance

An ordinance aimed at giving the municipality an avenue to deal with landlords whose tenants disturb or threaten the neighborhood is being challenged by the ACLU for a second time.

ACLU Targets Norristown Over 'Three Strikes' Ordinance

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal lawsuit against Norristown on Wednesday over the municipality's "Three Strikes" ordinance aimed at landlords whose tenants are the source of repeated police calls for "disorderly conduct or other activities that disturb or threaten the neighborhood."

The ACLU charges that the ordinance is unconstitutional and "punishes innocent tenants and their landlords for requesting police assistance."

The case was filed on behalf of a Norristown resident, Lakisha Briggs, a victim of domestic violence who the ACLU says faced eviction for calling police when she was being attacked by her abusive ex-boyfriend.

"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, according to a press release issued by the ACLU. "Nobody should have to fear losing their home when they call for help."

According to court documents, after being notified she was in danger of running afoul of the ordinance, Briggs was so terrified that she refused to call police for help when she was brutally attacked and almost killed by her former boyfriend.

According to the ACLU, in June 2012, Briggs' boyfriend at the time 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." Briggs had to be flown by helicopter to a nearby hospital for treatment.

The ACLU alleges that officials continued to threaten her landlord with revocation of his rental license (a provision of the original "Three Strikes" ordinance), despite Briggs' being a victim in two of the three incidents cited as leading to the three strikes violation. (One instance involved a fight between Briggs' boyfriend and another man at a party at her home.)

"When a city penalizes a woman for requesting help for domestic violence, the system is broken," Sandra Park, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, wrote in the release. "Laws that stop tenants from calling the police are unconstitutional and can actually put lives at risk." 

The ACLU threatened a lawsuit in 2012 that, according to the Municipal Manager Dave Forrest, alleged the ordinance was unconstitutional because it gave police and municipal officials power over who would be punished under the ordinance and denied landlords due process in court. Norristown Municipal Council revoked the ordinance in November 2012 and reintroduced an amended version in December adding a series of escalating fines instead of rental license forfeiture.  

The ACLU maintains that the amended ordinance is still an undue burden on victims and infringes on tenants civil rights.

The current lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court by the 

The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Pepper Hamilton LLP names the Borough of Norristown, former Municipal Administrator David Forrest, Interim Municipal Administrator Robert Glisson, former Norristown Police Chief Russell Bono, Interim Norristown Police Chief Willie Richet and Code Enforcement Manager Joseph Januzelli as defendants in the case.

"We are planning to file a motion for preliminary injunction to prevent Norristown from enforcing the December 2012 ordinance while the case is pending," Sara Rose, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, told The Times Herald. "We hope we will have a hearing soon. We hope this will be resolved quickly."

Norristown officials could not be reached and council members have not responded to requests for comment.

You can download a full copy of the ACLU's complaint in our PDF section and read more about Norristown's "Three Strikes" ordinance here on the municipality's website.

This is a developing story. Patch will update as more information becomes available.

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