The ACLU filed a lawsuit Friday against the city of Maplewood, Missouri, over a policy that allegedly evicts domestic violence victims and banishes them from the St. Louis suburb if they call police for help more than twice in six months.
Friday’s lawsuit was brought on behalf of Rosetta Watson, who suffered a series of domestic violence attacks at the hands of her then-boyfriend Robert Hennings throughout 2011 and 2012. According to the lawsuit, Watson’s ex repeatedly showed up at her home to punch, shove, and choke her. She called the police four times, and Hennings was arrested and charged with assault three times.
Despite the pattern of arrests, Watson was punished under Maplewood’s nuisance policy, which bans “more than two instances within a 180-day period of incidents of peace disturbance or domestic violence resulting in calls to the police.”
The city issued the domestic violence victim an eviction notice, according to the ACLU. The lawsuit states that Assistant City Manager Anthony Trexler wrote in the order that “numerous calls to police” had put Maplewood police officers “at risk.” Watson, who had previously been given an occupancy permit as well as a Section 8 voucher for housing, was told that she would be denied an occupancy permit anywhere in the city for six months.
NBC News sent requests for comment to Trexler and Maplewood Police Chief Stephen Kruse but did not receive a response.
“These laws are very prevalent. We’ve worked on this issue in at least 14 states and we know they exist in over 30 states,” said Sandra Park, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “Many municipalities don’t put their codes online, but we think it’s safe to say there are thousands of laws like this around the country.”
City Manager Martin Corcoran, who is also named in the lawsuit, told NBC News, “We have not seen the lawsuit or been served. Until we have a chance to review the lawsuit we are unable to comment.”
Watson was forced to move to nearby St. Louis, according to the ACLU. There, her abuser tracked her down, kicked in the door to her apartment, and stabbed her. Too afraid to call the police, the lawsuit states, she went by herself to the hospital.
“I thought calling 911 would help stop the domestic violence, but instead Maplewood punished me,” Watson said in a statement. “I lost my home, my community, and my faith in police to provide protection. I want to make sure that other women in Maplewood do not suffer the way I did.”
It’s the second lawsuit filed against the city in a month over the nuisance ordinance. On March 14, the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council sued Maplewood over allegations that the ordinance was used to target African-American residents, with especially harmful effects on women and disabled residents who may have a higher need for police assistance.
The ACLU also filed lawsuits in Arizona in 2015 and Pennsylvania in 2013 over similar municipal ordinances that they allege punished domestic violence victims for placing calls to police.
“It’s hard enough from someone to consider calling the police,” said Wanda Lucibello, of the Crime Victim Assistance Program at Safe Horizon.
Lucibello cited her experience as a prosecutor working with domestic violence victims, and said that it typically takes up to seven instances of abuse before a victim calls police.
“It takes a lot of escalation and violence before someone gains the courage to say, ‘I really need the police to come give me assistance to get out of this situation,'” said Lucibello.
Victims of interpersonal relationship violence, said Lucibello, often struggle with the economics of leaving an abusive partner: finding a new home and moving with children are not easy tasks to take on alone. Being faced with potential eviction just for calling police only adds to the desire to stay silent, she added.
“It’s often shocking to people who find out that calling 911 can result in being pushed out of their own homes,” said Park.
Park said in most cases, people aren’t aware their city or town has a cap on the number of 911 calls citizens are allowed to make before being considered a “nuisance.”
In addition, research has found that in some cities the nuisance bans are disproportionately used against African-American communities. In a 2012 study published in the American Sociological Review, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond found that citations in Milwaukee were issued mostly to the city’s black residents — and a large number of those were for domestic violence calls.
“Nearly a third of all citations were generated by domestic violence,” the study reads. “Most property owners abated this ‘nuisance’ by evicting battered women.”
According to Park, nuisance citations aren’t the only problem. She cited a March 27 domestic violence shooting in Sanford, Florida, that occurred just hours after the accused shooter was arrested for domestic violence against the victim, then released. He allegedly then fatally shot the woman and her 8-year-old son before being arrested again.
“In some communities there’s a police failure to treat domestic violence seriously,” said Park.