MONTPELIER, Vt. — A lawsuit against the city of Burlington says a man who had been threatened and assaulted was labeled a public nuisance and evicted from his home because he called police too many times.
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the city, and attorney Jay Diaz said he documented the pressure the city’s code enforcement office put on landlord Joe Handy to evict tenant Joe Montagno.
Diaz described Montagno as a “vulnerable individual” in his early 40s who the lawsuit said had experienced threats and at least one assault with a metal pipe by a neighbor. A court later ordered the neighbor to have no contact with Montagno and to stay at least 10 feet from him, the lawsuit said.
It described numerous phone calls to police from Montagno and other tenants at 184 Church St. Montagno made 42 of them in 2015 — fewer than four per month. He had made four by Feb. 19 of this year, said the complaint filed in U.S. District Court.
It described police contacting the head of the city’s code enforcement office and asking whether a “code angle” could be used to “reduce calls” coming from the building.
It cited a Feb. 4 letter from city code enforcement director William Ward to Handy threatening to suspend the city’s compliance certificate for the property, which would have meant Handy could not rent units there. That letter demanded that Handy attend a meeting where he would tell city officials how he would reduce the calls to police coming from his tenants.
David Greenberg, a lawyer for Handy’s company, Sisters and Brothers Investment group, said the Handys are rare in their willingness to rent to low-income tenants who often deal with mental illness, substance abuse and other problems.
“My clients are not social workers, psychiatrists or anything else; nor can we station an armed guard in the building at all times,” Greenberg said.
He said he sympathized with the frustrations of the police, adding that the problems likely are unsolvable without a big increase in social services.
Pietro Lynn, a lawyer for the city, said the ACLU’s lawsuit was without merit and predicted it would be dismissed. He disputed the suit’s claim that Montagno’s First Amendment rights to complain to the police were being violated.
An Aug. 17 letter from 29 U.S. senators to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro said cases of crime victims being evicted occur with increasing frequency across the country. It said many of those who end up evicted are women who are victims of domestic violence.
Nine of 10 homeless women have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse, said the letter from the senators, including Bernie Sanders, Burlington’s former mayor.
The lawsuit about the Burlington police’s alleged “caller punishment policy” comes less than a month after Police Chief Brandon del Pozo issued a statement urging residents not to call and complain about noise from a military air show scheduled to occur over the city.