On June 23 of last year, Lakisha Briggs’ ex-boyfriend, Wilbert Bennett, went to find the 33-year-old mother of two at her house in Norristown, Pennsylvania, which she rented with a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Section 8 voucher. Bennett, who was just released from prison, wanted to get back together, and he refused to take no for an answer.
“You are going to be with me or you are going to be with no one,” he allegedly threatened.
Even though Briggs was terrified Bennett would hurt her or her 3-year-old daughter if she forced him to leave, there was something she feared even worse: calling the police for help. If she did, she could be kicked out of her home, and that wasn’t a risk she could afford. Feeling defenseless, Briggs succumbed to his intrusion and demands, allowing him and the friends he invited over to stay.
As outlined in the federal lawsuit filed April 24 on behalf of Briggs by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA), and Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP, Briggs had already been given three strikes under Norristown’s discretionary Rental License Ordinance. The ordinance gives the Montgomery County municipality the right to countermand a landlord’s rental license and provoke a tenant’s eviction if police respond to three “disorderly behavior” calls in four months, including domestic disturbances in which a mandatory arrest in not required.
The strikes Briggs received were the result of police calls made in April and May of last year — two of which were due to acts of domestic violence committed against her. In May, the borough began proceedings to revoke her landlord Darren Sudman’s rental license, but granted the property — and by extension Briggs — a 30-day probationary period after a late May hearing. Any violation during that period would have resulted in rescindment and eviction, claims the lawsuit.
Despite her reluctant surrender, on the evening of June 23 Bennett assaulted Briggs, according to the suit. Her lip was bitten and torn. A glass ashtray was shattered against the right side of her head, leaving a two-inch lesion. She was knocked down. Grabbing one of the large glass fragments, Bennett stabbed her in the neck. Briggs become unconscious as blood surged from the four-inch-deep wound.
Though the attack was brutal, Briggs didn’t call the police, because she feared provoking eviction. But a neighbor did, and soon Briggs was airlifted to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital for emergency medical care.
According to the lawsuit, David R. Forrest, Norristown’s municipal administrator at the time and one of the defendants named, considered the police response a violation of her probation. Three days after the incident, he told Sudman his rental license was rescinded and Briggs had ten days to vacate. She had just returned home from the hospital when Sudman broke the news.
“[Sudman] tried very hard to help her. He was very supportive of her and didn’t think it was fair that he should have to evict her,” Sara Rose, an ACLU-PA staff attorney and representative on the case, told RH Reality Check. “Ultimately, the borough gave him no choice.”
Although Magisterial District Justice Margaret Hunsicker overturned the eviction, allowing Briggs to remain in the unit, Norristown officials continued to pursue it, asserting they had an “independent right” to enforce the city’s ordinance. They ostensibly planned to remove Briggs from her home and condemn the property.
This is where the ACLU intervened. According to Rose, the group sent a letter to Norristown officials in September charting the ordinance’s First, Fourth, Fifth, and 14th Amendment infringements, as well as other legal issues identified under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA), which prohibits housing discrimination based on a number of identifiers, including sex.