PHOENIX (CN) – A Phoenix suburb’s unconstitutional law forces landlords to evict tenants who call 911 four or more times in 30 days, a victim of domestic violence claims in Federal Court.
Nancy Markham sued the City of Surprise, its Police Chief Michael Frazier and police Officer Christopher Tovar, challenging the city’s Nuisance Property and Crime Free Lease laws .
Surprise, pop. 120,000, is a western suburb of Phoenix. Its population was less than 31,000 in 2000, making it one of the fastest-growing cities in Arizona.
Surprise Municipal Code §105-104 and §105-106 “require landlords to take action against tenants when police are called or respond to crime at a rental unit, even if the tenant was not involved in or responsible for the crime, and impose penalties if landlords fail to take such action,” Markham says.
Surprise calls it a nuisance offense if a resident makes “four or more calls for police service or commission of two crimes at a property that the tenant allegedly ‘allows,’ even if the tenant called to report and deter her attacker or was the victim of the criminal conduct,” Markham says. She has lived in Surprise for 11 years, has two young sons, and wants to stay there.
The laws allow the city to penalize property who do not evict tenants who make the 911 calls, and require property owners to adopt crime-free lease provisions that allow landlords to evict tenants for “a single occurrence of any criminal activity,” Markham says.
Her attorney Sandra Park, with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, says it’s disturbing for a city to say, “you cannot contact police X number of times” or you will face legal sanctions.
“We think that many times this type of ordinance is enforced against domestic violence victims,” Park said. She said the unconstitutional law feeds a false stereotype that “somehow domestic violence victims are to blame.”
Markham says she suffered domestic violence from her ex-boyfriend from March through August 2014, and called 911 four times in 30 to her rental property. The property was the site of “two instances of criminal activity that threatened the safety of those in the area, either of which could trigger enforcement of the Surprise nuisance policy.”
But she didn’t commit the crimes. Markham says her ex – R.V. – choked, punched and threatened her, and twice brandished a gun or knife.
Defendant police Officer Tovar told her landlord that “serious criminal problems” were happening in the rental home, and “warned that the property may be deemed a criminal nuisance under the nuisance property section if the problems were not corrected,” Markham says.
Tovar incorrectly assumed that R.V. was invited there by Markham, “rather than an unwanted perpetrator of domestic violence who Ms. Markham could not control,” the lawsuit states. R.V. never lived at the rental home.
The property manager wanted to work with Markham to keep her in the home, and told Tovar that Markham had told him R.V. was the cause of the police contact, that he had been arrested and that she had an order of protection against him, the lawsuit states.
But Tovar said the protection order was not an adequate solution, and continued to encourage the manager to evict Markham, which he did in September, according to the complaint.
“Laws like the one in Surprise punish innocent people,” Markham says. She says she no longer calls police, and would think “twice, maybe four times, before calling.”
The City of Surprise declined to comment. But it issued a statement on its police department’s handling of domestic violence.
“(T)he City of Surprise Police Department takes domestic violence very seriously and has a track record of diligently supporting and assisting victims of domestic violence,” the statement says. “The Police Department remains committed to this effort and encourages anyone facing an emergency situation to always call 911.”
But Markham says Tovar’s attitude to male victims of domestic violence shows “gender-biased policing,” as he approved a “property owner’s proposed abatement method of only removing one tenant whom the property owner identified as the primary source of the problem.” She says Tovar did not make any accommodations for her.
Gretchen Arnold, assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at Saint Louis University, says she has found in her research that police do stereotype female victims of domestic violence.
“Of course, a lot of the women that we interview are doing their best to stay away from their abusers,” Arnold said.
Markham wants enforcement of the laws enjoined as violations of the Fair Housing Act, violations of constitutional guarantees of equal protection, speech, and due process, violations of Arizona equivalents of those laws, and compensatory and punitive damages.
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