by Jeff Jones

Most cities across the United States have laws that directly or indirectly penalize people for calling for help. These laws, typically called “chronic nuisance” ordinances, label property as a nuisance when police or other social services have to visit the property too many times over a given period. For example, my hometown (Milwaukee, WI) defines property as a chronic nuisance if “three or more calls for service are made within 30 days, or for certain crimes, two in one year.” Under Milwaukee’s law, property owners are held accountable for their own violations but also, in the case of landlords, for violations by their tenants.

Measuring nuisance by the number of times police must respond to calls for help is bad legal and moral policy.

Measuring nuisance this way is bad legal policy because of the likely consequences of such regulation. The classic definition of nuisance is “a substantial, unreasonable interference with the use and enjoyment of land.” Thus, nuisance regulation is usually tied to misuses of land in ways that bother other people, usually neighbors. Milwaukee’s ordinance, however, doesn’t charge nuisance for proof of land misuse that causes anyone harm. Instead, the “nuisance” in these cases are the citizens using social services paid for with their tax dollars. There is something wrong with punishing people who call for help “too much” just because it annoys the police.

Measuring nuisance this way is bad moral policy both for its lack of discrimination in application and its discriminatory effects. The application of the policy draws no distinction between perpetrators and victims of nuisance. Perpetrators may be persons making or dealing drugs from a residence, or continually playing music too loud, or failing to maintain one’s home or yard so as to become hazardous or just an eyesore to neighbors, or beating a domestic partner. A landlord or homeowner is responsible for this kind of classic nuisance and the Milwaukee law is on its safest ground here. Yet, a concerned neighbor who feels the duty to call the police on such misconduct too many times may find themselves to be the source of the nuisance finding.

Worse, measuring nuisance this way-by the number of calls for help from a particular residence-overlooks that often it is the victims of nuisance who are calling for help: the domestic violence victim, the elder abuse victim, people with severe disabilities or other serious health issues. When the victims of nuisance or other frailties call for help, their calls count toward the tally of nuisance phone calls as if calling for help is a sin all by itself.

The failure of this approach is exposed by the perverse incentives it creates for landlords. A landlord pressed by the police to abate a nuisance, that is, to control the number of calls for public help coming from her property, might most efficiently evict the person making the calls. The law gives landlords reasons, as well a legal basis, to evict people calling for help. This will often be easier than controlling the behavior of residents who are misusing property. The former (eviction) already has the backing of the police.

In Milwaukee, there are at least two ways for a landlord to avoid fines for nuisance. Get rid of tenants who are misusing property. Or get rid of the whistleblowers who call on them. That’s one way too many.