Surprise, Arizona to Pay $40,000 to Battered Woman Threatened With Eviction for Calling 911

The city of Surprise will pay $40,000 to a battered woman who was pushed out of her home for calling 911 too many times, according to a settlement agreemen. 

City officials also agreed to repeal the ordinance that nearly got Nancy Markham, a single mother of two, evicted in August of 2014 after her ex-boyfriend, among other things, broke into her house, attempted to strangle her, and stole her car. 

The ordinance, aiming to cut back on crime, labeled someone a "nuisance" if they called the cops more than three times in 30 days and held property owners accountable for resolving the issue.

Markham's landlords, under threat of being held criminally liable for crime that occurred on the property, told her to move out or get kicked out.

"The concept of these ordinances is horrific. They don't reduce crime," said Dan Pachoda, senior counsel for the ACLU. "They cause harm to crime victims."

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Dan Pachoda, senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the city in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, argued the provision violated Markham's First Amendment right to seek police assistance.

Pachoda said he was "very pleased" with the settlement and hoped it would "be a lesson" to other cities throughout the state, including Phoenix, that have similar nuisance ordinances. 

"The concept of these ordinances is horrific," he said. "They don't reduce crime. They cause harm to crime victims." 

Surprise maintained that the provisions were "completely legal," City Attorney Robert Wingo told New Times in a written statement.

"The City Council had to decide whether they are so crucial to the health and safety of the community that their preservation is worth the expenditure of city resources during a litigation process," he said. 

Because the Surprise Police Department has "not once issued a citation or taken any formal action against a landlord" under the provision, the city decided its "resources would best be used elsewhere." 

Under the settlement terms, Surprise is barred from adopting any ordinance or policy that "punishes tenants, residents, or landlords for calls for police service" or "punishes them for criminal activity of which they are the victims." 

Moving forward, Wingo said law enforcement officials will use state law to "address any nuisance properties within the community." 

State Representative Celeste Plumlee (D-Tempe) is pushing a bill to block all cities, towns, and boards of supervisors from adopting or enforcing nuisance ordinances that discourage victims of domestic violence, such as Markham, from calling police. But the measure hasn't gained much momentum and it appears unlikely to pass this session. 

While the ACLU called Plumlee's proposal "an improvement," Pachoda criticized it for only protecting victims of domestic violence and not victims of other crimes. 
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Elizabeth Stuart
Contact: Elizabeth Stuart