The City of Maplewood may soon overhaul a controversial public-nuisance law that has been challenged by two recent lawsuits.
Maplewood’s City Council introduced an ordinance Tuesday that would add protections keeping victims of crimes from eviction and exclude calls to police from counting as a nuisance against residents.
The revision is part of a settlement agreement in a federal lawsuit brought against Maplewood by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The settlement is contingent on the ordinance being amended. It also requires that calls made to police by crime victims are no longer used in nuisance decisions made by the city, and that city officials who are responsible for nuisance-ordinance violations be trained how to treat crime victims more fairly.
The ACLU will also receive records from the City of Maplewood for the next five years, so the organization can track how the amended ordinance is being enforced. Rosetta Watson, the plaintiff in the ACLU case, will receive monetary compensation for damages incurred as a result of being evicted.
The changes come out of mediation between the ACLU and the city.
The ACLU filed its lawsuit against the city on behalf of Watson, who Maplewood functionally evicted after her former boyfriend attacked her. Police were called to her residence on more than twice, exceeding the current law’s maximum.
City officials deemed Watson a nuisance and revoked her occupancy permit, which barred her from the city for six months. She couldn’t afford to renew her permit, lost her Section 8 voucher, and struggled to keep new housing as a result.
Under the proposed ordinance, that couldn’t have happened.
Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU-MO, said that’s what the ACLU and Watson wanted from the case.
“Important to [Watson] and important to us was fixing this going forward. So there wouldn’t be future crime victims put in the position she was,” Rothert said.
Rothert said he thinks the city changed its mind after understanding what had happened to Watson.
“It took a case like Ms. Watson’s and the obvious injustice that was caused for the human beings involved in this policy to see that there was something wrong with it,” he said, “rather than just a threatening letter, an abstract idea that it harms victims of crime.”
The changes prevent calls to police from counting against a property when it’s being evaluated as a nuisance. It would protect victims of crime or other injury from actions the city takes to address a nuisance. The amendment also would narrow the definition of nuisance to focus on hazardous property conditions, instead of actions taken against the public broadly.
Maplewood's Mayor Barry Greenberg said he thinks the amendments help clarify things for residents who are concerned that the policy could be abused by city officials.
“It’s been an effective tool, and the concern was that tool could be used in a matter that might not be appropriate. I don’t think it has. I don’t think it was intended to do that, but the clarification of the language, I think, is helpful,” said Greenberg.
Rothert said that city officials and police officers will also receive training to clarify what constitutes a nuisance. The city will send related records to the ACLU for monitoring as Maplewood implements the new policies.
A Maplewood official said city staff will not comment until the council approves the ordinance.
The bill is eligible for approval starting with the council meeting on Sept. 25.
Rothert said that he hopes the case could encourage other cities to change their nuisance-property policies.
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