St. Louis Studies of Nuisance Laws

There have been two studies in St. Louis documenting the ways that nuisance laws affect battered women. Both use qualitative data such as interviews, observations, and organizations’ documents to describe the chain of events that lead from an abusive incident and 911 call to the enforcement process and how it affects women’s lives.[1]

How does the nuisance law in St. Louis work?

The City of St. Louis has had a nuisance law on its books since 1996. Recent versions define a nuisance as any activity that is considered a felony, misdemeanor, or ordinance violation under federal, state, or municipal law, and give examples like prostitution, illegal gambling, and drug activity. Properties are designated a nuisance when two or more 911 calls are made within a 12-month period reporting any of these violations at a given address. When this happens, a “Cease and Desist” letter is sent to the property owner requiring him/her to “abate the nuisance” or face fines, property forfeiture, or incarceration. To prevent these sanctions, landlords often turn around and threaten to evict the tenant if the 911 calls do not stop.

In October 2016, an amendment was passed to St. Louis’s nuisance law that excludes domestic violence from the group of nuisance law violations. At the time of this writing, it is unclear what, if any, effect it has had on the law’s impact on battered women.

The first St. Louis study

The first study was carried out from 2010 to 2012.[2] The researchers examined the nuisance law enforcement process in St. Louis City, and conducted interviews with 16 professionals who worked closely with the nuisance law. Interviewees included 3 police officers, 4 municipal prosecutors, 2 neighborhood stabilization officers, 1 city alderman, 2 housing attorneys, and 4 battered women’s advocates. This study concluded that the nuisance law hinders battered women’s access to safe and secure housing and often ends in eviction; it undermines their safety, especially by discouraging them from calling 911 for protection; the law in effect holds the victim accountable for the abusive behavior; it imposes financial and legal burdens on battered women; and it makes it harder for advocates to deliver services effectively to battered women.

The second St. Louis study

The second study was carried out from July 2013-July 2014.[3] The researcher and her assistants interviewed 27 primarily low-income African American battered women in St. Louis City and County who had been the target of nuisance law enforcement because of domestic violence. This study concluded that nuisance laws hinder battered women’s access to safe and secure housing; discourage them from calling 911; increase their vulnerability to violence; compound the trauma of the violence; increase the abuser’s power over his victim; exacerbate the class- and race-based risks many battered women already face; hold victims accountable for the abuse; and obscure the real crime of domestic violence.

In a subsequent analysis of the same data,[4] the researcher concluded that nuisance laws undermine battered women’s citizenship by denying them the use of police services, curtailing their access to public housing assistance, preventing them from using civil orders of protection as a mechanism for safety, and barring them from occupying spaces in their communities. She also argues that these laws are part of a larger pattern of neoliberalism in the U.S. that has the effect of making disruptive minority groups disappear.

[1] Like most qualitative studies, neither study is designed to show how often nuisance citations are issued, for which offenses, nor which racial or other groups they most often target.

[2] Gretchen Arnold and Megan Slusser, 2015. “Silencing Women’s Voices: Nuisance Property Laws and Battered Women.” In Law & Social Inquiry 40(4): 908-36.

[3] Gretchen Arnold, 2016. “From Victim to Offender: How Nuisance Property Laws Affect Battered Women.” In Journal of Interpersonal Violence, currently available online at http://journals.sagepub.com.ezp.slu.edu/doi/pdf/10.1177/0886260516647512.

[4] Gretchen Arnold, 2017. “Neoliberalism’s Assault on Women’s Citizenship: The Case of Nuisance Laws and Intimate Partner Violence in the U.S.” Unpublished manuscript.

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