Critics Blast Pennsylvania City’s ‘One-Strike’ Property Law

Critics Blast Pennsylvania City’s ‘One-Strike’ Property Law
December 6, 2013

Adam Peters has lost out on $625 each of the past three months.

Wilkes-Barre made the landlord the first target of its controversial “one-strike ordinance,” which allows the Northeastern Pennsylvania municipality to shutter a property for six months if it’s the scene of a drug or weapons violation. The suspension can go into effect immediately — before any hearing for the landlord or tenant.

The city has painted it as a crime-fighting tool as it deals with record-setting violence, but landlords see it as an assault on their constitutional right to due process. Other critics contend it could unfairly evict tenants and discourage residents from calling police for fear of losing their homes.

Peters has vowed to take the issue to federal court. He insists he’ll win.

“It’s an absolute joke, and I’m fighting back because it’s not right,” Peters said in a recent interview with PA Independent.

Rallying Opposition

John F. Bradley, an attorney representing the Northeast Pennsylvania Landlord Tenant Homeowner Association, said he is trying to rally legal and political opposition “to resist this type of government intrusion” and prevent similar ordinances elsewhere.

“Our feeling is if we take a hard line now, we can deter other municipalities from doing this type of thing,” said Bradley, who also recently filed a legal challenge against a nuisance ordinance in Pittston, a small city just north of Wilkes-Barre.

Wilkes-Barre officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

The City Council approved the ordinance in August. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania sent the city a letter October 3 contending the new law violates the due process rights of landlords and tenants and infringed upon citizens’ rights to petition the government – in this case, calling the police for help.

Multiple Constitutional Issues

The ACLU alleged the ordinance violates the First, Fifth and 14th amendments, the state constitution, the Fair Housing Act of 1964 and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

Sara Rose, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said her organization has met with city officials, and she thinks Wilkes-Barre may reconsider the ordinance. That could help the city avoid a costly legal battle.

“We’ve been having good discussions with them, so we’re hopeful that those will lead to some positive changes,” Rose said.

Fine, Eviction for Calling Cops

The ACLU has compared Wilkes-Barre’s measure to a Norristown ordinance allowing the borough to fine landlords if police respond to disorderly situations at their properties. That ordinance has already led to litigation from a woman who faced threats of eviction after police were summoned to her home for reports of domestic violence.

In a subsequent incident, the woman’s boyfriend stabbed her in the neck with a shard of glass. With a young daughter, she didn’t call police for fear of losing her home because of the borough’s ordinance. She asked her neighbors not to call 911, even as blood seeped from her wounds.

“It does have significant consequences for victims of domestic violence, as well as other crimes, who have to choose between maintaining their housing and exercising their right to summon police and protection when being victimized,” said Ellen Kramer, legal director for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Legal, Legislative Responses

Norristown hasn’t fared well in its legal battle. A federal judge denied the borough’s attempt to have the case dismissed, while state Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery) has introduced legislation that would bar municipalities from penalizing residents or landlords who need police assistance at their properties.

“I fully support (municipalities’) rights to eliminate law-breakers from their community. I just vehemently oppose any ordinances that would adversely affect victims,” said Stephens, a former prosecutor.

The House Local Government Committee will consider Stephens’ legislation next week. He had not heard about Wilkes-Barre’s ordinance, but the ACLU said it “suffers from the same constitutional infirmities” as Norristown’s law.

Not Even a Tenant

Peters’s situation began September 11, when police raided the apartment and found what they believed to be drug money and crack cocaine. The tenant's boyfriend, who was living in the apartment but was not on the lease, was arrested on drug charges.

Nobody contacted Peters to inform him of a problem at the apartment, he said. But two days after the raid, Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton hosted a news conference outside the apartment to announce its closure under the one-strike ordinance.

The city’s housing appeals board upheld the decision to shut down the apartment, but that hearing wasn’t held until November, well after Peters began to lose a monthly rent check. To him, there’s more to it than lost revenue.

“I don’t care about that much,” he said. “What really has me upset is just the way the city is handling this.”

Andrew Staub (Andrew@PAIndependent.com) is a reporter for PAIndependent.com, where this article first appeared.