Calling 911 Can Make You A Nuisance And Lead To Eviction
Chronic Nuisance Ordinances (also known as CNOs and “crime-free ordinances) start off sounding like a disease, and that’s not far off given how they’ve spread like an epidemic in the last fifteen years. A new study published in Harvard’s Civil Rights-Civil Law Review reads like a blistering indictment of these Ordinances, the police forces implementing them and the municipalities across the country hopping aboard the Nuisance bandwagon – a trend so alarming, it can’t be overemphasized.
All jurisprudence is done with the threat of the state’s use of its absolute domain over violence, you need to know that and understand its implications. All laws operate, civil or criminal, operate with that threat of state’s ultimate domain over violence i.e. if you do X you will be fined, if you don’t pay the fine you’ll be held in contempt, more fine, so on so forth till it eventually ends with you behind the bar as state exercises its authority to violently subdue you.
Across the United States, an estimated 2,000 municipalities have CNOs on the books. As of 2013, more than 100 municipalities in the state of Illinois alone had adopted some kind of nuisance ordinance, and in 2018, the New York Civil Liberties Union found that more than half of New York State’s most populous municipalities had a CNO on the books. These ordinances vary across towns, cities, and counties but generally share similar DNA.
Arbitrary Definitions And Implementation
Of the many problems encoded in these CNOs, the greatest perhaps is that CNOs don’t encode “nuisance activity”, but broadly. Definitions of nuisance behavior vary by ordinance, ranging from criminal conduct occurring on or near the property—even when the resident is the victim—to innocuous activities like excessive noise or failing to tend one’s lawn. Other ordinances define a “nuisance” violation broadly to include any act that city officials perceive as an “annoyance” or “inconvenience.” These vague definitions enable discriminatory enforcement; a law that fails to provide minimal guidelines to police allows them to pursue their personal predilections and biases.
Jane, a resident of Bedford, Ohio, called 911 asking for help because she believed her boyfriend was suicidal. The police responded, wrote a report, and left. But the next day, Jane’s landlord got a fine and a form letter from the town’s chief of police ordering the landlord to stop the 911 calls coming from her home.
Jane was already flagged by Bedford, months prior, because she had previously called the police when her boyfriend had threatened to kill himself. Calling again makes Jane a nuisance, thus the city fined her landlord $250. Jane lost her home, since Bedford, IL., is among the 2000 municipalities with a CNO. Her landlord facing further fines and a potential misdemeanor charge initiated eviction proceedings.
Apart from the few vague definitions above, most of these ordinances will also designate homes as nuisances based on calls to 911—no matter who makes the call. The threshold varies; for example, in Maplewood, Missouri, it takes just two 911 calls within a 180-day period for a home to be deemed a “nuisance.” Landlords are then encouraged, or even legally required, to “abate the nuisance,” a legal term that effectively means that landlords have to either evict the tenants or stop them from calling 911 for help.
Affecting The Weakest And The Marginalized
For tenants with mental health needs or disabilities, chronic nuisance ordinances create an impossible choice between risking eviction and forgoing help. Researchers at Harvard analyzed police reports and call logs from towns and cities across the Midwest—and found case after case in which chronic nuisance ordinances led to cities forcing people with disabilities out of their homes. The study reads, “Our research found that cities frequently weaponize nuisance ordinances against people in need.”
Sarah, a resident of Baraboo, Wisconsin, called the police after reading on social media that her daughter intended to hurt herself. The police transferred Sarah’s daughter to a crisis center. But a few months later, the City issued a citation to Sarah’s landlord and warned him of further action if he did not abate the nuisance—referring to Sarah’s police calls on behalf of her daughter.
In one Missouri suburb, a tenant who called a mental health hotline after feeling suicidal received a nuisance citation from the city for “generating too many calls for police services.”
These are not just isolated anomalies, for example, a lawsuit challenging Maplewood’s ordinance found that at least 25 percent of nuisance enforcement actions stemmed from “obvious manifestations of disability.” Another study found that up to 40 percent of nuisance enforcement in a set of Midwestern cities was related to a person experiencing a drug overdose. Because nuisance ordinances are disproportionately enforced in heavily policed Black and Latinx neighborhoods, people of color with disabilities are especially at risk.
Moreover, the madness doesn’t stop there. We are just scratching the surface, e.g. Municipalities with CNOs have also targeted Group Homes and Assisted-Living Facilities for the old and people with disabilities. South Milwaukee, Wisconsin, declared a living center a chronic nuisance property based on five police calls over the course of three months, including calls by residents seeking medical assistance.
Another city’s council discussed using a nuisance ordinance against a group home’s affiliated school to make the school “pay for an off-duty city police officer.”
These exceptions, even if they are in a select counties’ ordinance, are almost never taken into account. Another such exception for victims of domestic abuse like Lakisha Briggs was not enforced in her hometown of Norristown, Pennsylvania and she sued them arguing the nuisance ordinance violated the Constitution – which we’ll get to in a minute. But 911-calls related to domestic violence are the “single largest category of calls” made to the police. One study in Milwaukee found that about a third of nuisance designations were related to domestic violence (and that most were in predominantly Black neighborhoods, demonstrating nuisance laws’ outsize impact on Black women).
After a public outcry, the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama issued guidance warning that enforcing nuisance ordinances against domestic violence survivors risked running afoul of the federal Fair Housing Act. At the time, HUD said that it would soon issue similar guidance about nuisance laws and people with disabilities. But three years later, that guidance has yet to be seen.
New York and Illinois have passed legislation that requires towns and cities to amend their ordinances to exempt 911 calls for help related to domestic violence and disabilities, and a handful of cities have adopted those exceptions on their own.
These reforms offer little comfort, since even when exceptions exist, local police may fail to enforce them. Madison, Wisconsin’s local nuisance ordinance specifically includes an exception for domestic violence—but researchers show at least eight instances in which citations were issued to homes in Madison, partly based on 911-calls related to domestic violence.
Domestic violence survivors often say nothing about abuse when the police arrive because they are scared, financially dependent, or unwilling to send abusive partners to prison.
CNOs — In Conflict With The Constitution
Apart from the discriminatory and authoritarian nature of implementation, these ordinances still violate legal protections. In the 2015 case Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, the Supreme Court recognized that the Fair Housing Act prohibits policies that have a disparate impact on individuals who belong to a protected class. When chronic nuisance ordinances have an outsize impact on people with disabilities, they may very well be illegal.
Chronic nuisance ordinances may also violate Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that public entities provide public services, including access to emergency medical assistance, without discrimination based on disability. Towns like Bedford may try to defend their nuisance ordinances by saying they enhance public safety—but there’s no evidence at all that they do. Rather, chronic nuisance ordinances put marginalized tenants’ health and safety at risk by evicting people like Jane or deter them from calling 911 in a crisis.
Advocacy groups like the ACLU are also challenging chronic nuisance ordinances under the First Amendment, which protects individuals’ ability “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These lawsuits argue that when residents like Jane and Sarah stop calling 911 because they’re afraid of being evicted under a chronic nuisance ordinance, their First Amendment right to call on the government for help was chilled or denied.
The federal Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to “discriminate in the sale or
rental,or to otherwise make unavailable or deny” a home to a person because of their disability, sex, or race. Yet that’s precisely what chronic nuisance ordinances do …
They push people, especially people of color, out of their homes because they have a disability or experience gender-based violence. Any city that believes in the FHA’s promise of equal housing access should take nuisance laws off the books—and if they don’t, they may find themselves in court. This culture of silence, suffering, and suffering in silence has to come to an end; you will take them to court, and we will continue to be a nuisance for all these towns, counties and municipalities.
Names of aggrieved parties mentioned are changed for privacy.