Civil Rights

Woman sues Missouri city over ordinance evicting her for calling police on abusive ex-boyfriend

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In September of 2011, Rosetta Watson called the police after her then-boyfriend, Robert Hennings III, broke down her door and punched her in the face. The following February, she called again three separate times, after Hennings choked, hit and shoved her.

Hennings was convicted of domestic assault about six months later, the New York Times says. But by then, Watson had already suffered consequences of her own—she’d been kicked out of the home she was renting in Maplewood, Missouri, outside St. Louis. Under a Maplewood city ordinance, residents’ right to live in Maplewood can be revoked if they call the police more than twice in six months for domestic violence incidents.

Watson, 58, is now a plaintiff in a lawsuit (PDF) against Maplewood and some of its officials filed Friday by the American Civil Liberties Union. It alleges that the city ordinance violates and is pre-empted by the federal Violence Against Women Act, and violates domestic violence victims’ rights, including the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Similar “nuisance laws” that affect domestic violence victims are not uncommon. The ACLU has sued over similar ordinances in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and Surprise, Arizona, ACLU attorney Sandra Park noted last week on the ACLU’s Speak Freely blog. Both lawsuits resulted in settlements that revoked the ordinances.

“Nuisance and crime-free ordinances are popular across the country, but they are deeply unfair, dangerous policies,” Park wrote. “They punish people for crimes occurring at their homes, often resulting in homelessness and the silencing of residents who need to call 911.”

According to the Times, Hennings was arrested and released after at least three of the four calls Watson made to police. (He was sentenced to 200 days in prison in 2012.) But the city of Maplewood told Watson that the four incidents put its police officers at risk and caused a “high magnitude of harm.”

The lawsuit says Watson, who was relying on disability payments and a Section 8 rental housing voucher, lost her voucher when she was barred from renting in Maplewood. She was unable to rent a stable home as a result, causing her to be homeless for short stretches and move eight times since leaving Maplewood. Her voucher was restored last year, when the St. Louis County Housing Authority was informed that revoking it violated VAWA.

The city officials named in the lawsuit did not reply to messages or declined comment to the Times. Hennings died in 2013, the Times says.

Park wrote on the ACLU’s blog that ordinances that penalize people for calling the police undermine law enforcement by scaring residents out of reporting crimes. The states of Iowa, Minnesota and Pennsylvania have passed laws preventing cities from punishing residents for calling emergency services, the Times reported.

See also:

ABA Journal: “Ordinance that evicts tenants for seeking police aid is putting abused women out on the street”

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