ACLU rejects ‘broad’ rental rules

By on October 15, 2014

Says it could negatively impact victims of domestic violence

The American Civil Liberties Union has warned Ephrata Borough officials last week that its proposed rental ordinance is filled with legal red flags.

apartment-for-rent-sign

Ephrata’s ordinance would penalize individual property owners when police respond to a rental unit three times for certain specified crimes or conduct.

But the ACLU suggests the ordinance is flawed because it’s applied regardless of whether the residential occupant was a victim of the cited crime or accessed police assistance out of reasonable, legitimate fear or concern.

Borough officials said the ACLU letter will be discussed by the Development Activities Committee meeting on Monday, Oct. 20 at 6:30 p.m..

The letter, dated Oct. 2, by the ACLU Eastern Region Office in Philadelphia, said the ordinance could have the opposite result of what officials had intended.

Though the borough aims to address a legitimate concern, “the ordinance in fact undermines public safety and infringe upon the legal rights of tenants,” the letter states.

The proposed ordinance stipulates penalties, such as fines, property closure, and fortitude of rental permits, which require or pressure landlords to evict tenants at issue.

The ACLU notes the ordinance has limited exemptions for crime victims or victims of domestic violence and “also raise significant privacy concerns for all residents of Ephrata.”

Because of the ordinance, Victims of domestic abuse may actually be afraid to call police or emergency assistance because doing so may jeopardize their housing, the ACLU suggests.

While Ephrata’s ordinance provides an exemption for domestic abuse victims, it requires that a protection from abuse (PFA) order be in place.

“A PFA order may be an effective tool for some victims of domestic violence but it is no guarantee against violence and may not be the safest option for a victim,” the letter states.

Since victims are often warned by abusers not to contact police or courts and retaliation can be severe, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence has opposed the PFA requirement by municipalities.

Ephrata’s ordinance states that a landlord would be penalized, or given a strike, for conduct in the rental unit that is “declared illegal under the Pennsylvania crimes Code or that is deemed to disturb the peaceful enjoyment o others on or near the premises.”

The ACLU states that the language is exceptionally broad and dependent only on subjective “finding” by police “with no requirement that the cited “incident of behavior constitute a criminal offense.”

Police are “likely to seep up innocent parties,” the letter states.

Ephrata Solicitor James R. McManus received a copy of the letter in which the ACLU urged Ephrata officials to reject the ordinance.

The ACLU called the proposed rental ordinance “more punitive and chilling” than an ordinance that was repealed in Norristown after officials agreed on Sept. 2 to pay $495,000 to settle a lawsuit challenge of the law.

Patrick Burns is a staff writer for The Ephrata Review. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at pburns.eph@lnpnews.com or at 721-4455.

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