Norristown ordinance draws more fire

Posted: May 02, 2013

Two Pennsylvania representatives and the Montgomery County district attorney on Tuesday criticized a Norristown ordinance that was meant to reduce disorderly conduct, but that can penalize domestic-violence victims for calling the police.

The ordinance, as initially written, allowed the municipality to revoke rental licenses if police were called to a rental property three times within four months in response to disorderly conduct reports. It has been rewritten, but still can punish renters who call for police too many times.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Lakisha Briggs, 33, to challenge the ordinance, saying it "punishes innocent tenants and their landlords for requesting police assistance."

Reps. Todd Stephens and Mike Vereb, both Republicans who represent portions of the county, said they also were troubled by the ordinance.

"We're not going to allow any borough, municipality, or city ordinance to get in the way of their access to help," Vereb said, speaking at a news conference Tuesday also attended by District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman and representatives from women's advocacy organizations.

Ferman sent a message to domestic violence victims: "We will not let any government make a move to hurt you, to throw you out of your home, and to make your situation worse than it is."

Norristown Council President Gary H. Simpson, in a statement, took issue with the ordinance's critics.

"Council is looking to protect not only those who suffer from these deplorable acts, but also those who believe they deserve a better quality of life," Simpson said. "We are looking to place greater levels of accountability on the landlords. . . .

"Nowhere in this current ordinance does it suggest we are not sympathetic to those victims of domestic violence."

Critics of the ordinance cite Briggs' case as an example of the harm the law can cause.

Briggs had been repeatedly assaulted by her boyfriend at her rental house in 2012. Fearing she and her 3-year-old daughter would be evicted under the ordinance, Briggs stopped calling police to report the attacks.

In June, the man, who by then was her ex-boyfriend, stabbed her in the neck with a glass shard.

Briggs did not call police, but a neighbor did, triggering Norristown to start eviction proceedings against her. Those efforts have since been blocked by court order.

The federal lawsuit seeks an immediate order prohibiting any action against Briggs or her landlords, a ban on the municipality enforcing the ordinance, and unspecified damages.

"We think it has a chilling effect on tenants' rights to call police and ask for help," said Sara J. Rose, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Stephens said he likely would draft a bill that would prevent those who suffer domestic violence from being twice victimized.


Contact Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109, cdavis@phillynews.com, or @carolyntweets on Twitter.

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