All it took was four calls to the police to get Rosetta Watson banished from Maplewood, Missouri, a city less than ten minutes from St. Louis.
A “victim of repeated domestic violence perpetrated by her former boyfriend, Robert Hennings,” according to an ACLU lawsuit, Watson called her local police when she feared for her life from September 2011 to February 2012. Three of the four calls to the police resulted in Henning's arrest for domestic assault in the third degree after he kicked the front door, punched, choked, and verbally abused Watson.
But her calls violated the city’s “nuisance ordinance,” which states that more than two calls to the police about domestic violence from the same address within six months is considered a neighborhood annoyance.
Since Maplewood residents are required to have an occupancy permit, violation of that ordinance could result in revoking their permit and a delay in obtaining a new one for six months.
Simply put: Watson was banished from a “community she loved” because she called the police on her abuser too many times.
“Maplewood ordered [Watson] to leave her home and banished her from living anywhere in Maplewood for six months,” according to the ACLU lawsuit filed on Watson’s behalf.
The ACLU’s lawsuit demanded the 2006 ordinance be changed because it ignored Watson’s First Amendment rights and the “rights of victims of domestic violence, the majority of whom are women” while empowering “abusers to act without fear of police intervention.”
On Tuesday night, the Maplewood City Council unanimously voted to reform the controversial law by the end of the month.
“We think this settlement is an important step forward in providing projection for crime victims who need emergency help so that they are not punished for calling 911,” Sandra Park, an attorney for the ACLU Women's Rights Project, told The Daily Beast. “The settlement fundamentally changes the law in Maplewood and we hope this will ensure that domestic violence survivors like Watson will not be penalized for seeking protection.”
The revised ordinance will eliminate the “three-strikes policy” against victims and remove language that could fine or banish these residents for just calling the authorities. These new changes cannot be undone for five years under the agreement with the ACLU.
The ACLU settlement will also compensate Watson and the civil-liberties organization with a $137,000 reward and dictates that the city must train its officials on victim-support techniques and to provide the ACLU with annual records on how they enforce the changed ordinance.
City Manager Marty Corcoran, a defendant in the lawsuit, declined The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Corcoran, however, told St. Louis Post-Dispatch that while the city settled the lawsuit, they did it to avoid legal costs and not out of fear of losing the case. “It puts this lawsuit behind us and still gives us tools to make our city safe, clean,” Corcoran said to the newspaper on Wednesday.
ACLU’s interest in Maplewood predates Watson’s case, Park said, because of their antiquated ordinance that “banishes” residents by revoking their occupancy permits needed to live in the city, unlike some of her other cases in which the ultimate punishment was eviction.
Maplewood’s ordinance is so uniquely harsh that the city has been sued before. Last year, the St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council sued the city for violating the Fair Housing Act, stating the “draconian remedy” was discriminating against African-Americans, women, and disabled citizens by disproportionately revoking their occupancy permits.
The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed on a legal technically.
“We are happy the ACLU reached a settlement with the City of Maplewood about their nuisance ordinance. The settlement provides significant relief to Ms. Watson, just one of the many victims of a discriminatory and harmful ordinance that punishes residents simply seeking help,” Will Jordan, executive director of the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “We are disappointed the settlement did not include a full repeal of the nuisance ordinance, but we are pleased to see meaningful changes to protect people with disabilities and survivors of domestic violence.”
He continued: “However, we remain concerned that nuisance ordinances disproportionately affect people of color and we will continue monitoring Maplewood’s enforcement of the ordinance for fair housing violations.”
Maplewood Mayor Barry Greenberg told a local radio station Tuesday night that while he believes these changes will help the city’s residents trust the police, he maintains the city did not do anything wrong.
"[The ordinance has] been an effective tool, and the concern was that tool could be used in a matter that might not be appropriate," Greenberg said. "I don't think it has. I don't think it was intended to do that, but the clarification of the language, I think, is helpful."
Greenberg declined The Daily Beast’s request for additional comment, referring instead to his radio interview.
But to Rosetta Watson, the damage has already been done.
“I thought calling 911 would help stop the abuse, but instead Maplewood punished me,” Ms. Watson said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “I lost my home, my community, and my faith in police to provide protection. I brought the case to make sure that other women in Maplewood do not suffer the way I did.”