Unanswered Calls: When Domestic Violence Is Seen as a “Nuisance”

Nuisance laws on their surface seem neutral and well-intentioned. In reality, they hurt victims of intimate partner violence by preventing them from getting access to the help they need.

Public attention has been focused recently on the uncertain future of U.S. abortion rights, and rightly so. Many have pointed out that low-income women and women of color are the most impacted by bans like the 15-week ban at the heart of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case or the six-week ban out of Texas—both of which are, in effect, bans on women’s ability to exercise their legal right to abortion. But there is another, lesser known way in which women’s rights have come under attack in recent years: the enforcement of nuisance laws against victims of intimate partner violence.

Nuisance laws fine and evict people when too many 911 calls are made to a specific address. These laws are usually passed at the municipal level, often in the hope that they will stem the flight of middle-class residents from urban areas by enforcing certain standards of behavior on residents.

But while these laws are often sold to constituents as a way to crack down on prostitution, drug dealing, noisy neighbors and building code violations, they are also often enforced against victims of intimate partner violence who call 911 for protection from their abusers. And it is low-income, minority women who are the least likely to be able to pay for a lawyer to defend themselves against eviction under these laws.

Amy’s Story

Research in the last six years has documented the widespread enforcement of nuisance laws against battered women and described many ways in which these laws are harmful. Here is one woman’s story from St. Louis:

Amy was getting fed up with the abuse from her long-term boyfriend. His violence was getting worse, her children were getting old enough to start asking questions about it, and she was thinking seriously about ending their relationship.

She had called the police for protection five times in the last two years, and their usual response had been to tell him to leave the house for a few hours. After her last 911 call, though, they took a very different approach: The police told her that if she called them again, both she and her boyfriend would be charged with violating the city’s nuisance property ordinance, arrested, and their children taken into custody by the state’s child protective services. In addition, they would report Amy’s repeated 911 calls to her landlord and she would be evicted from her home.

Amy’s story is by no means unique. Many women who call 911 for protection are faced with threats of fines, arrest and eviction if they call again. In practice, this denies women and other victims of domestic abuse one of the most fundamental rights of citizenship—the right to freedom from unwarranted injury at the hands of fellow citizens.

As feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky has argued, all contract theories of the state make clear that, in exchange for giving up their prerogative to engage in personal violence, citizens are entitled to protection from the state. But when the police threaten battered women with fines, arrest and eviction if they call 911 again, they not only deny women access to this most basic level of protection—they also leave them vulnerable to repeated, serious threats of harm.

The Impact of Nuisance Laws on Women

There are many consequences of nuisance laws for battered women’s lives, and they can be devastating. Many women end up homeless or in more dangerous living situations either because they have been evicted or because they felt they had to move immediately to avoid it.

Being evicted can make it difficult or impossible for women to rent another home because most landlords refuse to rent to tenants who have a record of a prior eviction. For low-income women, eviction can cause them to lose their Section 8 certificates or their place in public housing. Eviction can often trigger a mental health crisis or exacerbate an existing one, and can compound the trauma the victim has experienced from the abuse itself. Eviction is destabilizing for these women’s children, who often end up staying with other relatives until their mothers can find stable housing.

For those women who choose to stay in their homes even though they can no longer call 911, the nuisance law can cause the violence to escalate, either because the abuser feels there is no longer any check on his actions or because the victim decides she must protect herself by whatever means necessary, including using lethal violence.

Many municipalities have passed nuisance laws in the last decade, and although the exact numbers are impossible to come by, it appears many more are continuing to do so. But the harm done by these laws is not spread across all economic and racial groups equally. There is evidence that nuisance laws are enforced disproportionately in racial minority neighborhoods and that they are often used against women of color.

The cumulative impact of nuisance law enforcement against battered women is to make it impossible for them to exercise their rights of citizenship. Nuisance laws restrict women’s ability to call 911 and jeopardize their safety and the safety of their children. They lead to evictions, take away women’s access to housing subsidies, and bar them from occupying spaces in certain buildings, residential complexes, neighborhoods, and sometimes even entire municipalities. They also eviscerate progressive government policies designed to reduce intimate partner violence, such as civil protection orders.

In effect, nuisance laws exclude low-income minority women from residing in their communities while leaving them even more exposed to gender-based violence.

The Future of Nuisance Laws

Organizations like the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU have successfully brought lawsuits against several municipalities who have been forced by the courts to pay compensation to the victims and modify their nuisance laws. But as long as there are nuisance laws on the books that are used against battered women, these laws will represent yet another attempt to roll back the hard-won legal and policy gains women in the U.S. have fought so long and hard for.

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Gretchen Arnold, Ph.D., is associate professor of women’s and gender studies at St. Louis University. Her research on nuisance laws can be found online at nuisancelaws.org.