Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Sweeping Public Nuisance Law Threatens the Rights of DC Residents

D.C.. City Councilmembers Jim Graham and Jack Evans, supported by the Attorney General, the U.S. Attorney, and the Metropolitan Police Department, have introduced a sweeping proposal to create a public nuisance law in the District, authorizing broad injunctive relief to abate or enjoin "public nuisances."  The Neighborhood and Victims' Rights Amendment Act of 2009, B18-595, defines "public nuisance" broadly to include "anything that threatens the health, safety, quiet enjoyment of life or property, or security of any considerable number of reasonable persons in a defined geographic area."  The Attorney General, the U.S. Attorney, or any community-based organization – which could include any group of persons organized on behalf of a community – could file suit seeking an order to enjoin or abate the nuisance.  The bill authorizes preliminary injunctive relief without a showing of irreparable harm and removes any right to a jury trial. 

Legal Aid offered oral and written testimony in opposition to the bill at a public hearing before the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary on April 19, expressing several concerns about the bill as written.  First, the law is drafted so broadly that virtually any dispute between private citizens, including landlord-tenant and tenant-tenant issues, could become swept up in this process, potentially eviscerating the District's carefully-calibrated landlord-tenant laws.  This concern is heightened by the fact that any community-based organization could file suit and obtain sweeping injunctive relief – potentially including an order for an individual to vacate their home – on 10 days' notice without a showing of irreparable harm.  Based on the experiences of our colleagues across the country in jurisdictions that have adopted public nuisance statutes, one group of vulnerable citizens who can become caught up in such laws are survivors of domestic violence, whose calls to the police and efforts to ward off their abusers can be viewed as creating a "nuisance."  We also noted that the removal of the right to trial by jury, at least in cases involving the right to possession of real property, arguably is unconstitutional.  Legal Aid urged the Council not to rush to judgment and to consider amendments that would limit the far-reaching scope of the current proposal.

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