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Easton City Council erupts over ACLU response to rental property bill

Easton City Council
Brian Myszkowski
Easton City Councilmember Taiba Sultana read a letter from the Pennsylvania ACLU encouraging a vote against fellow Councilmember Frank Pintabone's property bill which aims to reduce crime by making landlords responsible for evicting tenants involved in certain criminal activities. Pintabone said the bill had been removed from the evening's agenda, and was still being worked on to ensure it did not result in any violations of tenants' and landlords' rights.

EASTON, Pa. — Easton City Council's meeting Wednesday became contentious over the American Civil Liberties Union's reaction to a rental property bill amendment that had already been removed from the agenda.

During the committee reports part of the meeting, Councilwoman Taiba Sultana read a letter from the ACLU of Pennsylvania regarding fundamental issues it had with Councilman Frank Pintabone’s recently proposed amendments to the city’s rental property codes.

“This ordinance, which I'm just adding would only affect people that get their house raided for drug sales, illegal weapons, child pornography, or human trafficking – that's all it would pertain to. And we were going to work to do something."
Easton City Councilmember Frank Pintabone

However, that piece of unfinished business — the bill essentially enforces that landlords evict tenants who have been involved in certain criminal activities or be penalized — had been removed from the agenda at the start of the meeting, prior to Sultana’s arrival.

Pintabone had previously stated that the bill required more feedback from the community, council, the solicitors and Easton City Police before it was properly reintroduced.

The ACLU letter

The letter, which came from Pennsylvania ACLU Legal Fellow Ariel Shapell, said that, “If passed, Bill 10 would do great harm to Easton residents: it would discourage people from contacting the police for help, at great cost to public safety; and it would put vulnerable residents at risk of eviction for conduct for which they may not be responsible.”

Shapell stated the bill would be a violation of Easton residents’ constitutional and statutory rights, and likely would lead to costly litigation.

“For example, in 2009, Norristown passed an ordinance similar to Bill 10 authorizing the municipality to suspend or revoke a landlord’s rental license when police had responded to three instances of ‘disorderly behavior’ at the property within a four-month period,” the letter reads.

Shapell cites a case in 2012 when “police responded to the home of Lakisha Briggs, a Norristown renter, several times after she was violently assaulted by her boyfriend.”

Police allegedly threatened that Briggs and her daughter would be evicted under the city’s ordinance, and as a result, she “felt trapped when her violent boyfriend demanded to move in with her.”

Later that month, Briggs’ boyfriend allegedly assaulted her again, stabbing her in the neck, according to the ACLU. Before Briggs lost consciousness, she begged a neighbor not to contact the police out of fear she would be evicted.

“But the neighbor did call 911. After Ms. Briggs returned home from the hospital, her landlord informed her that the borough had revoked his rental license and was forcing him to evict her,” Sultana read from the letter during the council meeting.

“The Norristown ordinance was subsequently repealed after Ms. Briggs brought a federal lawsuit against the borough. Norristown paid $495,000 to settle her case.

“In response to the harm caused by the Norristown ordinance, the General Assembly passed 53 Pa. C.S.A. § 304, which prevents municipalities from enacting ordinances that penalize a resident or landlord for contacting the police when they have a reasonable belief that police intervention is necessary to prevent abuse, crime, or an emergency.”

According to Shapell, Pintabone’s bill would penalize tenants with eviction if they contact the police to report abuse, crime, or emergencies that lead to the execution of a search warrant.

Shapell also said the bill lacks “procedural safeguards to protect tenants from being evicted for conduct for which they are not responsible.”

“We urge you not to pass Bill 10. Passing Bill 10 would be counterproductive to your public safety goals, harmful to Easton’s renters, and could expose Easton to liability."
The conclusion of the letter American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania sent Easton City Council

Furthermore, Shapell wrote, the bill “would also likely violate a slew of other constitutional and statutory rights held by both landlords and tenants.”

“For example, a judge considering a constitutional challenge to a City of Wilkes-Barre ordinance stripping landlords of their occupancy licenses if an owner or occupant of a rental property knew of certain criminal activity in and around the property refused to dismiss claims that the ordinance violated the plaintiffs’ rights under the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause,” Shapell’s letter reads.

“We urge you not to pass Bill 10. Passing Bill 10 would be counterproductive to your public safety goals, harmful to Easton’s renters, and could expose Easton to liability,” the letter concludes.

Response from the council

Pintabone quickly responded that he had removed that bill from the agenda at the start of the meeting, providing further commentary on the matter after noting he had also received the letter from the ACLU.

“They're mistaken on what the proposal is, and based on your comments on social media the past two weeks, I don't think you're aware of what we discussed two weeks ago,” Pintabone said.

Going on, Pintabone said the example from Norristown in the letter “wouldn’t apply to this … We’re not looking to throw battered women out, or women who are being abused and are scared to call the police.”

Pintabone said he had engaged with the South Side Civic Association to get community input for the bill later that week and had intended to hold further meetings on the matter.

“This ordinance, which I'm just adding would only affect people that get their house raided for drug sales, illegal weapons, child pornography, or human trafficking — that's all it would pertain to," Pintabone said to Sultana.

"And we were going to work to do something. I would think that you'd be aware of the other ordinance that would evict people and suspend the [landlord’s] license if they don't evict for loud music, but you still haven’t brought that up in over two years."

Mayor Sal Panto Jr. said he was “against that [ACLU] letter, I don’t agree with that letter at all.”

He said the point of Pintabone’s bill was to reduce crime, and that city solicitors were evaluating the bill’s language to ensure it did not violate any rights or laws.

“But we're not looking to kick any good people out," Panto said to Sultana. "We're looking to kick criminals out of the neighborhoods.

"And as a city council member, you should be concerned about the crime."

Solicitor Jeremy Clark said he was working alongside solicitor Joel Scheer “to craft this to try to narrowly target the people that council wants to target that are the bad actors in the city that are causing trouble for everybody and also to avoid harming people who aren't supposed to be harmed and also to avoid liability about the city expose us to those things.”

Pintabone later repeated that the bill still was in the works, and even in its original form, it did not reflect what was brought up in the ACLU’s comparison to the Norristown ordinance.

"A lot of the things that the ACLU mentioned in there was a blanket statement that they copied and pasted from all over the world,” he said.

He also told Sultana that while he appreciated her work with the ACLU — adding he would be happy to converse with them on the bill — he wished she would work with the council more often.

“She's not coming to us for anything,” Pintabone said.

Councilwoman Crystal Rose said she felt the work being done on the bill fell in line with good government, and urged that council “continue these conversations until it's ready to be voted on.”

Pintabone said he would like to discuss the matter further at the Easton City Council committee meeting on April 23.

“I want to make sure it’s done right, and that it’s fair and equitable to everyone,” he said.

“There will be plenty of public discussion before anything comes to pass. This is something that's going to take thought and time, and I'm open to hear opinions from everybody.”