What the ACLU of Pennsylvania did for Victims’ Rights

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Lakisha Briggs, victim of Domestic Violence

While officials in the Corbett administration were busy talking about Mumia Abu-Jamal to every microphone they could find, the ACLU of Pennsylvania spent the last two weeks of the legislative session working quietly with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence to pass a bill that will help keep victims of crime in their homes.

The passage of House Bill 1796 was one of the glowing civil liberties achievements of the 2013-14 legislative session at the General Assembly. The new law prohibits municipalities from punishing victims of crime for calling for emergency services. It was motivated by our litigation against the borough of Norristown, in Montgomery County, in which our client, Lakisha Briggs, was threatened with eviction under the borough’s “nuisance property” ordinance. Lakisha was tormented on multiple occasions by her ex-boyfriend. After emergency services were called to her home a third time, an incident that included her ex stabbing her in the neck with a shard of glass, the borough employed the ordinance to begin eviction proceedings against Lakisha and her family.

We argued in our lawsuit that the people have a First Amendment right to call upon their government for help.

Even with that backdrop, the passage of this bill almost didn’t happen.

After we filed our litigation, Representative Todd Stephens, a Republican from Montgomery County who is also a former assistant district attorney, introduced HB 1796. Rep. Stephens convened key stakeholders, including PCADV, ACLU-PA, housing advocates, and the associations that represent municipalities, to hammer out language that everyone could agree to and that achieved what we wanted. That agreed-to language passed the state House unanimously.

When the bill arrived in the state Senate, however, it was nearly derailed by unrelated amendments that were sought by the Pennsylvania Retailers Association, the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, and the National Rifle Association. (More about that drama here.)

On the Senate’s second-to-last day of session, HB 1796 was saved from those unwanted amendments when Senator Vincent Hughes, a Democrat from Philadelphia, successfully used a procedural motion called “revert to the prior printer’s number.” In English, this means the bill goes back to a previous form. In this case, Senator Hughes wanted to go back to the version of the bill that passed the House. That motion passed, 26-22, with six Republicans joining 20 Democrats in voting for the motion.

That wasn’t the end of the drama, though. When the Senate calendar was released the next day, the chamber’s final day of session for the year, the bill was marked “over,” meaning it would not get a vote and would not pass this session, forcing us to go back to the beginning of the process next year. While allies like the Women’s Law Project and others got the word out to grassroots supporters around the state, lobbyists from PCADV, especially, and ACLU-PA worked the halls of the capitol to convince Senate Republicans that this was a good vote to hold and that this bill was important.

Ultimately, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi called up the bill for a final vote. And, to his credit, Senator John Eichelberger, who introduced one of the unrelated amendments sought by the restaurants and the retailers, spoke in favor of the bill on the Senate floor. It passed unanimously.

Governor Corbett signed the bill yesterday, so he literally lifted a finger to help.
This was truly a bipartisan, bicameral, multi-organization effort. The real credit goes to everyone I’ve named above- Representative Stephens, Senator Hughes, Senator Pileggi, the 26 senators who voted for Hughes’ motion. And the most credit goes to our friends at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who struggled for this bill until the very last day and who wouldn’t let it pass with unwanted amendments.

Now people who are victims of crime, like Lakisha Briggs, know that they can call for help when they need it. They don’t have to choose between emergency service from their government or keeping their homes.

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Andy Hoover Andy Hoover is responsible for the ACLU-PA’s lobbying efforts at the state level in Harrisburg and at the federal level in Washington, D.C. From 2004 to 2008, he was a community organizer for ACLU-PA and is an experienced advocate, cutting his teeth in the anti-death penalty movement during the Ridge-Schweiker administration. Andy also serves on the boards of directors of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and The Interfaith Alliance of Pennsylvania.