NEW YORK — The New York Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU, the Empire Justice Center, and the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence called on 9 cities across New York today to abandon policies known as “nuisance ordinances,” which can lead survivors of domestic violence and other crimes to be punished or evicted for calling the police.
The requests follow a ruling last year from a state appellate court striking down a similar ordinance in the Village of Groton and explain to mayors and city councilmembers that such policies in their cities are also unconstitutional and should be rescinded. The cities receiving requests include Babylon, Cheektowaga, Greece, New Hartford, Rome, Troy, Utica, Village of Hempstead, and Yonkers. Separate requests are made of Rochester and Schenectady, where the local ordinances recognize that the law should not be used to punish victims, but nevertheless risks punishing innocent tenants and some people in need of police assistance.
Nuisance ordinances — also called disorderly house ordinances or crime free ordinances — label a property as a nuisance when it is the site of a certain number of calls to police or alleged nuisance conduct, a category that can include assault, harassment, stalking, disorderly conduct, and many other kinds of behavior. Such laws usually apply even when a resident was the target, and not the source, of the nuisance activity. Upon citation, property owners typically are instructed to "abate the nuisance" or face steep penalties. Many landlords respond by evicting the tenant, who may be the victim of the crime; refusing to renew their lease; or instructing tenants not to call 911.
In a June 2017 decision in the case of Village of Groton v. Pirro, a state appellate court struck down a nuisance law from the Village of Groton, New York, as unconstitutional under the First Amendment because it “deters tenants from seeking assistance from police by placing them at risk of losing their home.” The court adopted arguments made in an amicus brief filed by the ACLU, NYCLU, Empire Justice Center, and other groups in the case.
Today’s letters cite recent examples of lawsuits in Arizona, California, and Pennsylvania that successfully stopped enforcement of nuisance ordinances similar to the cities’ policies that threaten tenants with evictions. They also request additional information from the cities through the Freedom of Information Law about how they had enforced their nuisance ordinances, including any warnings, penalties, fines, or communications issued in relation to the nuisance ordinances in recent years.
The organizations sending the letters also have supported state legislative efforts to curtail the harmful effects of these ordinances, including bill A.2919 Lavine/S.405 Robach, which would protect New Yorkers’ right to call for help without losing their housing.
“A 911 call to report domestic abuse is not a nuisance and should not be the basis for an eviction. It is a call for help,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “No victim of domestic violence or crime should have to choose between their housing and their safety.”
“The safety of entire communities is put at risk when people fear eviction or punishment and therefore avoid calling the police,” said Sandra Park, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “It’s time for the cities, towns, and villages of New York to stop wasting resources enforcing cruel nuisance ordinances and take a stand to protect communities and preserve housing rights.”
“The ruling last year that Groton’s nuisance ordinance was unconstitutional should be a wake-up call to all cities with similar policies,” said Scout Katovich, legal fellow with the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Nuisance ordinances stifle free speech, block access to help for those experiencing abuse, and place cities at risk of legal action. No victim of domestic violence or crime should have to choose between their housing and their safety. And cities that force such a choice face the threat of legal action.”
“For many years, the proliferation of so-called nuisance ordinances by large and small local municipalities across New York has resulted in harm to New Yorkers, pushing innocent crime and domestic violence victims out of their homes simply for calling the police for help – a violation of their most basic constitutional rights,” said Amy Schwartz-Wallace, senior staff attorney for Empire Justice Center. “These ordinances have repeatedly been found to put victims and their children squarely in harm’s way. While there are numerous communities across the state with similar bad practices, today’s action puts a handful of communities on unequivocal notice that their dangerous local laws have legal consequences and cannot continue. We are pleased to join the ACLU, the NYCLU and NYSCADV in sending these community leaders a clear message.”
“New York state must protect the rights of victims of domestic violence to call 911,” said Connie Neal, executive director of the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Nuisance ordinances contradict one of the most critical methods for supporting the safety of victims of domestic violence — the ability to call for life-saving help. These ordinances put thousands of victims in danger by forcing them to choose between critical emergency assistance and their housing.”
Copies of the letters submitted to the New York cities are attached below.
More information on nuisance ordinances can be found at https://www.aclu.org/other/i-am-not-nuisance-local-ordinances-punish-vic...