When Nancy Markham’s ex-boyfriend wrapped his hands around her neck and attempted to strangle her last year, she called 911. She called again when he showed up with a handgun and tried to break into her house, again when he threatened her with a knife, and again when he drove off in her car without her permission.
The Surprise Police Department arrested her ex-boyfriend for aggravated assault.
Then, citing a city policy that declares renters a “nuisance” if they call 911 more than three times in 30 days, the police department arranged to have Markham and her two children forced out of their home.
Markham, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and the private law firm Aiken Schenk, now is suing the city. The lawsuit, filed Thursday, alleges that Surprise’s nuisance ordinance violates Markham’s First Amendment right to seek police assistance and disregards the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition on gender discrimination.
“I never did anything wrong as a renter,” Markham said. “I paid my rent on time and obeyed the rules. The only crime that ever occurred on my property was domestic violence and my calls to police.”
The Surprise City Council pushed the ordinance in 2010 as a way to crack down on crime and hold property owners accountable for slum conditions. Homeowners associations lauded it as a way to increase property values.
But Sandra Park, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, argues that it “robs” domestic violence victims, like Markham, of the “ability to seek safety through law enforcement response.”
Markham called 911 multiple times between March and September 2014 in fear of her ex-boyfriend, according to court filings.
Several neighbors lodged complaints with the city about the situation.
"We are tired of having the police on our street for the same thing over and over," a group of community members wrote in a letter. "We're tired of having to tell our children they are safe to play outside when, honestly, we as parents do NOT feel that it is safe enough for them to be outside as long as this repeat-offender is on our street."
Markham said police never mentioned the ordinance to her.
Instead, the Surprise PD notified Markham’s landlord in August that the property would be labeled a “criminal nuisance” if Markham was not evicted, noting that her home was the subject of “numerous calls for various incidents.”
If the landlord refused, police said in an e-mail, he would “not be considered an innocent owner/agent’” if any crimes were committed in the future.
Police acknowledged, in correspondence with the landlord, that Markham “was the listed victim in each of these cases” but said she “would sometimes be uncooperative with the officers upon their arrival.”
The ACLU alleges that the city continued to pressure the landlord to kick out Markham and her children even after her ex-boyfriend, who did not share a residence, had been incarcerated and she had obtained a restraining order.
Police records provided by the city, however, suggest the landlord asked for advice and the attending officer "toId her it was her decision" and indicated that his "part in this was to advise her what had been taking place at her rental home."
Eventually, the landlord gave Markham the choice to move or be evicted. Markham moved out.
Because of the experience, Markham said, “I no longer call police in Surprise. Even if I am in a dangerous situation, I will think twice — maybe four times — before calling police in Surprise.”
Gretchen Arnold, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Saint Louis University, said nuisance ordinances not only discourage battered women from calling for help, leaving them with no protection, but also compound the trauma of the abuse.
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“Now the victim not only has to deal with the violence itself,” she said. “But, in addition, she has to deal with a possible court case, with the threat of being fined or evicted, and with finding a new place to live right away.”
The City of Surprise declined to discuss the incident, citing "pending litigation." But noted in a statement that "the City of Surprise Police Department takes domestic violence very seriously and has a track record of diligently supporting and assisting victims of domestic violence."
The police department "remains committed" to aiding victims, the city stated, and "encourages anyone facing an emergency situation to always call 911."
*Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the circumstances of Nancy Markham's departure from her home. She was not evicted. She was given the choice to move out under threat of eviction.