Breaking leases: Domestic violence bill goes a bit too far

Good public policy is rooted in the details of legislation, not emotional appeals or the good intentions of lawmakers. Too many bills targeting social ills, public safety issues or consumer concerns have passed as a result of political pressure, only to create unintended consequences because of poorly considered language.

Put Assembly Bill 284 on the list of good ideas that go too far. The bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Lucy Flores and Asssemblyman Elliot Anderson, both D-Las Vegas, would allow the victims of domestic violence to break residential leases; be liable for no more than one additional month in rent; and have protection from retaliation by a landlord.

Domestic violence victims — the vast majority of them are women — sometimes must uproot themselves and their children to escape future abuse. They can’t return to a home they shared with an abuser. The financial burden of paying for a home a victim can’t live in can ruin a family. And once a renter breaks a lease, the loss of a landlord as a reference can make it difficult to find new housing.

AB 284, like laws in Nevada’s neighboring states, requires a tenant to provide a landlord with written notice of early termination of the agreement, along with a copy of a court-issued protective order or police report that details an allegation of violence against the victim within the previous 90 days. Landlords would get 30 days’ notice of early termination, the same standard that exists in Arizona and California. That’s a reasonable benchmark.

The bill takes a wrong turn, however, by providing tenants with an additional out: Landlords also would be required to accept, as appropriate documentation for early lease termination, an affidavit from a third party stating the tenant is a victim of domestic violence. Among the people qualified to sign the affidavit: therapists, social workers, shelter workers, nurses and clergy.

There are two problems with this option.

First, an affidavit does nothing to bring an accused abuser to justice. “It fails to consider the safety of the community as a whole,” said Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, R-Las Vegas, who voted against it despite once having filed for a protective order herself. “I totally get this bill. But perpetrators of domestic violence would remain free.”

Second, an affidavit is nothing more than a statement that someone believes the accusations of a tenant. It is not evidence of any sort of official investigation. It does not provide an accused abuser with the ability to dispute the allegation. This weak standard would allow anyone who simply wishes to leave a co-tenant or break up with a co-habitant to level a false allegation of domestic violence without fear of punishment from law enforcement.

This bill is a classic political hammer. Any lawmaker who votes against it on well-reasoned grounds can be trashed during the next campaigns as someone who looks out for abusers and doesn’t care about domestic violence victims. In truth, this bill could erode the credibility of domestic violence victims by making landlords and third parties suspicious of their claims.

AB 284 passed the Assembly last week, 28-11. The Senate should amend the bill by striking the third-party affidavit as acceptable documentation for lease termination. Allowing victims of violent crime to break a contract makes sense, but only if they take steps to bring the criminals to justice.