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What Are Nuisance Laws?

How these policies can harm survivors of intimate partner violence

  • September 18, 2017
  • By Suzannah Weiss
What Are Nuisance Laws?

It's hard enough for a survivor of domestic or intimate partner violence to seek help or report the crime when their abuser could retaliate and law enforcement may not sympathize. But in some cases, calling 911 on a perpetrator could actually be illegal. That's because several U.S. cities have "nuisance laws," which may restrict how often residents can call the police.

In Maplewood, Mo., "more than two calls to the police regarding domestic violence from the same address within a 180-day period is considered a nuisance," the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports. Someone who breaks this policy could lose their home and be forced to stay out of their city for six months. That's what Rosetta Watson, who moved from Maplewood to St. Louis after reporting physical attacks at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, claims allegedly happened to her, according to the ACLU. Watson's ex-boyfriend remained free; he was able to find her again in her new home and stab her. He was finally arrested, charged, and pleaded guilty to domestic assault in the third degree after the St. Louis hospital that treated Watson contacted the police. He was sentenced to incarceration, and died in 2013.

"The city of Maplewood violated Ms. Watson’s fundamental constitutional rights by enacting and enforcing a law that punishes crime victims merely because they ask for help," Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in the statement. Maplewood City Manager Marty Corcoran and the Maplewood Police Department did not immediately respond to requests from Bustle for comment.

Sandra Park, staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, added that "laws like this are not only unconstitutional — they silence crime victims, empower abusers to act with impunity, and jeopardize community safety."

The ACLU has sued Maplewood and is pressing it to get rid of its nuisance law. The organization's "I Am Not a Nuisance" campaign aims to end these laws around the country.

Similar laws have already been repealed due to ACLU lawsuits. In Surprise, Ariz., for example, it used to be illegal for landlords to rent to tenants who contacted the police four times or more in a 30-day period, leading a woman reportedly to be evicted after reporting an alleged domestic violence perpetrator who was eventually put in jail. The settlement required the city to repeal the ordinance.

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While these laws don't always name domestic violence survivors specifically, the ACLU has found that they suffer disproportionately in two New York cities, and a study in Law & Social Inquiry found that survivors of color were hurt the most in Milwaukee.

There are already many other obstacles to reporting domestic abuse, including financial dependence on the perpetrator and societal stigma against survivors. On top of that, many survivors don't come forth because they're scared of getting deported, particularly in Trump's America. Right now, legal reform to make escaping abusive situations easier is more necessary than ever. If you want to protest your city's nuisance law, you can use Facebook's Town Hall feature to contact a local representative and voice your opposition.

Editor's Note: Suzannah Weiss is a writer whose work has also appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Marie Claire and Seventeen, among others. She holds degrees in Gender & Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture & Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience. This article was originally published at Bustle.com.