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Public Nuisance Laws Across The Country Are Being Challenged

Last November, the U.S. Department of Justice issued what it called a first-of-its-kind finding, telling a Minneapolis suburb that its enforcement of a “crime-free” or “public nuisance” law illegally discriminated against people with mental health disabilities.

Such laws, encouraging and allowing landlords to evict renters when police or emergency crews are repeatedly called to the same addresses, have long been criticized for being ineffective and discriminatory. 

Still, hundreds of communities across the U.S. have for several decades used them in attempt to reduce crime, fight gangs and tackle noise and other neighborhood problems, the Associated Press reports. 

While every ordinance is different, they generally mandate that landlords can be fined or lose their rental licenses if they don’t evict tenants whose actions are considered a public nuisance, including those selling drugs or suspected of other crimes. Landlords also can be required to screen potential tenants and limit the number of people living in a home or apartment.

Some are also vague, which allows discriminatory enforcement, critics argue — particularly against thoughts with mental health disabilities. 

One law, in  Hesperia, California, required landlords to have potential tenants’ applications screened by the local sheriff’s office, which, then shared with landlords a list of people it flagged as potentially troublesome renters.. It sparked a lawsuit after a resident was forced to leave her home and move into a motel after calling for assistance when her boyfriend had a mental health crisis. 

That law and others like it exacerbate a pattern of homelessness and jail stays for people who have mental health diagnoses. 

“We’ve seen people on street corners yelling or getting upset,” said Devon Orland, litigation director at the disability rights Georgia Advocacy Office.“That locality doesn’t want them around and then they reappear or they don’t leave immediately and they get arrested for criminal trespass.”

Critics also argue that the laws are more frequently enforced in communities of color.

An August 2018 report from the American Civil Liberties Union and New York Civil Liberties Union said data from Rochester and Troy, New York, showed the most vigorous enforcement of “no crime” and “public nuisance” laws occurred in poor and heavily minority areas.

But the laws are now being challenged across the country, through lawsuits and state law.

Maryland and California have both passed laws limiting cities and counties' use of nuisance ordinances. Advocates in California, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania have filed successful lawsuits forcing cities to rewrite or repeal their laws forcing evictions by landlords.


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