As It Happens

This Missouri town evicted a woman for calling police on her abusive ex

When Rosetta Watson was attacked by her ex boyfriend, she called the police. Then she was kicked out of her home — and her town — for being a nuisance.
The town of Maplewood, Mo., pictured here in June 2014, is facing a lawsuit after it evicted a domestic violence victim under its nuisance policy. ( Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via Associated Press)

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Rosetta Watson was evicted from her home and kicked out of town for being a nuisance after she called the police too many times on an ex-boyfriend she says was terrorizing her.

Now the 58-year-old is suing the town of Maplewood, Mo., with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. Her case follows similar ACLU lawsuits by domestic violence victims in Pennsylvania and Arizona.

"Her primary goal is to ensure that other victims of domestic violence and other residents in general do not face this punishment," ACLU lawyer Sandra Park told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

For Watson, the trouble started in September 2011, when her ex showed up at the home she was renting, broke down the door and punched her in the face, according to the lawsuit filed Friday in the United States District Court.

Getting kicked out of your home and, on top of that, getting kicked out of the entire city is perhaps one of the worst kinds of penalties you could think about.- Sandra Park, ACLU

Between then and February 2012, she called the police three more times on her ex, who she says hit, choked and shoved her. He was arrested on three of those occasions, but released without charge.

Those police calls prompted local authorities to deem Watson a nuisance and her revoke occupancy permit, which is required to live in the town about 11 kilometres west of St. Louis.

"So, essentially, she was forced out of her home and she was unable to move anywhere else in the city," Park said. 

City vows to fight 

At the heart of the lawsuit — which the city has vowed to fight — is the local ​nuisance ordinance, under which a person can be removed from their home and barred from living in the city for six months for, among other things, "more than two instances within a 180-day period of incidents of peace disturbance or domestic violence resulting in calls to the police."

City manager Martin Corcoran, who is named in the suit, told As It Happens that Maplewood has not yet been served the lawsuit, but plans to "vigorously defend" the ordinance. 
Maplewood City Manager Martin Corcoran, left, and Police Chief Stephen Kruse, right, are both named in the ACLU lawsuit on behalf of Rosetta Watson. (cityofmaplewood.com)

"The city vehemently denies any allegations that the city has unlawfully discriminated against or violated the rights of any female (or male) victims of domestic abuse," Corcoran said in an email.

"Maplewood citizens are entitled to live peacefully and free of the public nuisances caused by others involving instances of peace disturbance and domestic abuse occurring repeatedly at the same property over a short period of time."

The suit also names police Chief Stephen Kruse and public works director Anthony Traxler, neither of whom responded to a request for comment.

Not an isolated event 

Martin also noted the nuisance law is "similar to ordinances adopted and enforced by many other communities through the country."

On that count, Park agrees. 

"Unfortunately, we've seen that these laws are common around the country and that they often affect domestic violence victims," she said. 

The city of Surprise, Ariz., revoked its nuisance ordinance last year amid a similar lawsuit from the ACLU on behalf of woman who said she was afraid to call the police on her abuser over fear she'd be evicted.

ACLU lawyer Sandra Park says nuisance ordinances like the one in Maplewood, Mo., put domestic violence victims at risk. (ACLU)

In 2013, the ACLU launched a lawsuit on behalf of Norristown, Penn., woman who was so afraid of being forced out of her home, she begged her neighbours not to call 911 after her abuser slit her throat open with a broken ashtray. The town settled that lawsuit and revoked the ordinance.

Pennsylvania has since passed legislation preventing cities from punishing residents for seeking police or emergency assistance. Iowa passed a similar law last year.

Watson's ex followed her 

As for Watson, she moved to nearby St. Louis, where she says her ex tracked her down and attacked her again. 

"Because she had had this horrible experience in Maplewood, she didn't know how the St. Louis police would react," Park said. "So she took herself to the hospital rather than calling for assistance."

The hospital called police, and Robert S. Hennings III was arrested and charged with domestic assault, according to the suit.

Hennings was sentenced to 200 days in prison August 2012, according to the New York Times. He died in 2013.

Watson, meanwhile, is hoping to prevent other domestic violence victims from going through what she did, Park said.

"Getting kicked out of your home and, on top of that, getting kicked out of the entire city is perhaps one of the worst kinds of penalties you could think about," Park said.

"We don't impose that on almost anybody, certainly not people who commit crimes, and then to think about actually imposing it someone who's calling the police for help is probably one of the most egregious constitutional violations I've ever seen."

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