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U.S. Supreme Court OKs Drug Evictions

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U.S. Supreme Court OKs Drug Evictions

Postby consigliere » Wed Mar 27, 2002 12:10 am

This article appeared in the March 26th online edition of The New York Times:
Justices Rule Drug-Eviction Law Is Fair

By Linda Greenhouse

WASHINGTON, March 26 — The Supreme Court today interpreted a federal drug law to permit the eviction of public housing tenants for drug use by any household member or guest, even drug use that takes place outside the apartment without the tenant's knowledge.

The 8-to-0 decision overturned a ruling by the federal appeals court in San Francisco, which had interpreted the provision of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 to bar the eviction of "innocent" tenants who had neither knowledge of nor control over their family members' drug use.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said its interpretation was necessary to avoid the serious constitutional question that would be raised by depriving tenants of their property without proof of individual wrongdoing.

But the law raised no constitutional issue and its terms were clear, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said for the court today in a 10-page opinion. Justice Stephen G. Breyer did not take part in the case because his brother, Judge Charles R. Breyer of Federal District Court in San Francisco, was the judge who granted an injunction in 1998 to stop the Oakland Housing Authority from evicting four tenants who challenged the provision the authority had included in their leases to comply with the federal law.

There was nothing unusual, let alone unconstitutional, about "no-fault evictions" of tenants who failed to meet a condition of their lease, Chief Justice Rehnquist said. In signing the leases, the tenants agreed to make sure that no "drug-related criminal activity" would take place "on or near the premises" and agreed that they faced eviction if the lease was violated.

Civil rights organizations had filed briefs in the case, Department of Housing and Urban Development v. Rucker, No. 00-1770, to argue that the policy was unfair and would lead to increased homelessness. That no member of the court either agreed with or felt moved to acknowledge these arguments was a measure of the current court's relative conservatism.

A brief filed by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, on behalf of a coalition of civil rights and tenants' rights groups, described evictions undertaken by housing authorities around the country that it characterized as "horror stories" of "draconian enforcement." The brief said "a tenant who has a fleeting connection to the alleged perpetrator of a crime is put at risk because of conduct that only the most paranoid or clairvoyant tenant could possibly have foreseen."

The four plaintiffs who challenged the evictions in Oakland included two whose grandchildren, who lived with them, were caught smoking marijuana in a housing project parking lot; one whose daughter was found with cocaine three blocks from the apartment; and a disabled 75-year-old man whose caretaker was found with cocaine in his apartment.

Chief Justice Rehnquist said that Congress's intention to give public housing authorities the right to evict "innocent owners" like these was unambiguous, as shown by the statute's reference to "any drug-related criminal activity." He said, "This any drug-related activity engaged in by the specified persons is grounds for termination, not just drug-related activity that the tenant knew, or should have known, about."

The chief justice said the policy was a reasonable one, given that drug use presented a threat to other residents of a public housing project, regardless of whether the responsible tenant knew about it.

The New York City Housing Authority, the country's biggest local housing agency, said today that the court's decision would strengthen its policy, which it described as "zero tolerance for drugs and violent criminal activity."

Gerri Lamb, a tenant leader who heads the New York City Housing Authority Council of Residents Presidents, said that in practice, the authority often allowed a family to remain if the offending relative was excluded from the residence.

But Corinne Carey, a New York lawyer who represents families fighting drug evictions from public housing, said the authority's approach resulted in breaking up families and undermining an addicted family member's chances for recovery.

"Stable housing is the key component for anyone struggling with addiction," Ms. Carey said.

Dan Abrahamson, director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, which filed a brief in the case, said that the policy and the court's interpretation of it reflected "the criminal justice approach to drugs that has failed us for 20 years."
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