Shut up or Get Out! How Public Nuisance Laws Target Domestic Violence Victims

By Monica Macias

When Lakisha Brigg’s boyfriend started abusing her several years ago, her grown daughter called the police.[1] Before leaving, one of the officers warned Briggs that this was her first strike. She couldn’t believe what he said.[2] On another incident, her ex-boyfriend broke a glass ashtray against her head and used the broken glass to stab Lakisha in the neck. She lost consciousness from all the blood loss, a neighbor called the police for help, and a helicopter had to fly Lakisha to the hospital. A few days later, the city told Lakisha’s landlord his rental license would be revoked until Lakisha left the property.[3] Because the police were called to respond to three incidents of domestic violence at her residence in the span of four months, she now faced eviction.

Local communities are increasingly passing laws to control crime and nuisances on rental properties. They do so mostly by limiting the number of times police can be called to a residence. But it turns out that crime victims — especially victims of domestic abuse — are often the ones who end up being penalized.

The town Lakisha is from, Norristown in Pennsylvania, had what is known as a nuisance property ordinance. This meant that her landlord could be fined and have his rental license suspended if police were called to the property more than three times in four months for “disorderly behavior.” Unless, the landlord evicted his tenant. After Lakisha received the warning from the police of a possible eviction she did not continue to call the police every time her ex-boyfriend showed up. On the night he slit her neck open with a broken ashtray, her first thought was not to dial 911 because she knew it would lead to an eviction.

“The first thing in my mind is let me get out of this house before somebody call[s] [the police].” “I’d rather them find me on the street than find me at my house like this, because I’m going to get put out if the cops come here.”

What is Happening?

Many local communities are increasingly passing laws to control crime and nuisances on rental properties. To do this, the ordinances limit the number of times police can be called to a residence. However, crime victims—especially victims of domestic abuse are often the ones who end up being penalized. Although city ordinances serve many beneficial purposes, such as ensuring the efficiency of police resources and making sure that police do not spend time frequently responding to the same calls at the same residence, many of these nuisance ordinances do not have an exception for incidents of domestic violence. Consequently, victims are scared to call and report the abuse perpetrated against them or request police assistance.


The United States has a wide range of laws and policies to address gender-based violence. While valuable, these laws have not curbed the widespread phenomena of domestic violence and sexual assault and laws such as the one present in Lakisha’s case disproportionately impact victims of domestic violence. The United States can turn to the framework used by Human rights law to evaluate existing problems such the one present in Lakisha’s case.

What is the International human rights law framework?

Human rights principles focus on governmental responsibility to proactively take steps to prevent acts of gender-based violence committed by both private and governmental actors.[4] For example, addressing the underlying conditions that perpetuate violation of rights, such as discrimination, social biases and a lack of adequate institutional responses. Moreover, and what is very pertinent in this case is that human rights principles insist that gender based violence, should receive the same treatment, attention and resources as other serious crimes of violence.[5]

The approach used in human rights requires an effective response to violations when they occur and makes transparency, accountability and participation in government decision making a priority, as well as policies and programs that are responsive to community needs.[6]

            A number of core human rights principles relate to preventing and eliminating domestic violence by providing a roadmap for laws, programs and policies to combat gender based violence. Specifically, “due diligence”[7] has become the internationally accepted standard to guide government efforts to address gender based violence. The United States is not exercising due diligence when laws such as the one in Lakisha’s hometown continue to be passed. Due diligence includes a government obligation to protect individuals from harm and calls for effective investigations and remedies when violations occur.

Additionally, this framework underscores the importance of changing attitudes, polices and structures that are reflective of gender bias and that perpetuate the violence. Due diligence demands that all authorities, federal, state, and/or local duly investigate alleged rights violations. Human rights experts have found that in the U.S., there is generally a “lack of adequate enforcement by police and the judiciary.”[8] Effective government responses are critical and in the case of nuisance laws, when a police officer tells a domestic violence victim that they have “three strikes” before they end up on the street due diligence is not present.

Despite the creation of the Violence Against Women Act by the United States, protections targeted toward helping victims need to be strengthened. There is more to how the United States can learn from Human rights law, but as this short blog detailed a human rights approach can help and support victims by using different policies and legal change.

In Lakisha’s case, the ACLU sued, the federal government filed a fair housing complaint, and the law was eventually repealed. Eventually, the state of Pennsylvania passed a law to protect crime victims but similar measures keep popping up. As a result, some U.S. senators are calling for federal guidance on local nuisance ordinances.[9] They believe such laws put victims of domestic violence in an impossible position, call the police for help, and possibly face eviction from their homes. The legislators urge others “to do everything in [their] power to prevent further evictions of domestic violence victims and to ensure all Americans have critical access to emergency services without fear of retaliation.”[10]

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[1] First Amended Complaint PP 97-99, Briggs v. Borough of Norristown, No. 2:13-CV-02191 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 29, 2013)

[2] Id. PP 100-01.


[3] Id. P 104.

[4] Hugh Waters et al., World Health Organization, Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention, The economic dimensions of interpersonal violence, available at

[5] Id.

[6] Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, art. 4(c), U.N. Doc. A/RES/48/104, available at

[7] See, e.g., Human Rights Comm., General Comment No. 31 on the Nature of the General Legal Obligation Imposed on States Parties to the Covenant, ¶ 8, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add. 13 (May 26, 2004), available at

[8] Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, art. 4(c), U.N. Doc. A/RES/48/104 (Dec. 20, 1993), available at


[10] Letter sent out by senators to Congress.