Supreme Court Upholds Zero Tolerance in Public Housing -- Officials Can Evict Families Over a Member's Drug Use 3/29/02

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If anyone ever needed proof that what is legal and what is just are not necessarily identical, one need only look at this week's Supreme Court decision in HUD v. Rucker, the case that pitted poor, elderly public housing tenants against public housing authorities who moved to evict them because of drug use by family members. In a unanimous decision, the Court on Tuesday ruled that public housing authorities may indeed evict tenants for drug use by family members -- even if they did not know about it and even if it occurred outside the property.

The case arose out of the 1998 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which, among other things, required public housing agencies to use leases that allow for eviction of tenants if the tenant, tenant's family member, or guest engaged in drug-related crimes. The Oakland Housing Authority enforced the measure with vigor, moving to evict:

  • Lead plaintiff Pearlie Rucker, 64, her mentally disabled teenage daughter, two grandchildren, and a great-grandchild, because the daughter possessed cocaine three blocks from the apartment.
  • Willie Lee, 72, and Barbara Hill, 64, because their grandsons, who lived in the unit, were caught smoking marijuana in the parking lot.
  • Herman Walker, 76, a disabled man ordered out of his home of 10 years after his caretaker and two guests were caught with cocaine in the apartment.
The plaintiffs sued to block their evictions and the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in their favor, calling a law that threw innocent tenants out onto the street "absurd." The 9th Circuit argued that to avoid constitutional problems, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act must be interpreted to bar the eviction of innocent tenants without proof of individualized wrongdoing.

The Supreme Court disagreed. "It is not absurd that a local housing authority may sometimes evict a tenant who had no knowledge of drug-related activity," wrote Chief Justice William Rehnquist for the court.

In its ruling, the court assiduously avoided the constitutional snares thrown up by the 9th Circuit, instead taking a crabbed view of the case as a lesson in landlord-tenant law. "The government is not attempting to criminally punish or civilly regulate respondants [the tenants] as members of the general populace," wrote Rehnquist. "It is instead acting as the landlord of a property it owns, invoking a clause in a lease" that tenants have signed. There is no constitutional issue, Rehnquist wrote.

Civil rights and tenants' organizations had filed briefs in the case to argue that the policy was unjust, resulting in "horror stories" and "draconian enforcement." A brief filed by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School said "a tenant who has only 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."

Tenant advocates, civil rights groups and drug reformers reacted with horror to the decision. "The war on drugs is being waged most viciously against poor people," the Drug Policy Alliance's Daniel Abrahamson told the New York Times. "Any time the Supreme Court takes a case with drugs in it, it is another opportunity to further erode our civil liberties and constitutional rights."

Cornell University law professor Jonathan Macey told the Times the decision "gives legitimacy to the war on drugs." It is "symbolic and morale boosting" for drug warriors, he said.

Cardozo School of Law professor Paris Baldacci told the Times the Supreme Court was more concerned with crime than with innocent tenants. "It's that tone, that the court is so caught up in the sort of drug panic that it doesn't step back," he said. "Instead of getting the target who might be causing the reign of terror, this is sweeping up all the people who might have a drug problem."

"The only way they can get away with it is because it affects poor people," Sheila Crowley, head of the National Low Income Housing Coalition told the Washington Times.

The ruling has opened up both President Bush and his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, to jabs from people who recall their family members having drug problems while they occupy public housing (the White House and the governor's mansion). The irony is apparently lost on the Supreme Court.

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Issue #230, 3/29/02 Editorial: Supreme Disappointment | John W Perry Scholarship Fund for Students Losing Financial Aid Because of Drug Convictions Holds Initial Fundraiser in NYC | Supreme Court Upholds Zero Tolerance in Public Housing -- Officials Can Evict Families Over a Member's Drug Use | Justice Department Fights to Maintain Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparities | The November Coalition Critiques Sessions-Hatch Sentencing Bill | State Medical Marijuana Update: Maryland, Vermont and Connecticut | DC Federal Court Declares Ban on Medical Marijuana Ballot Measure Unconstitutional, Opens Way for New Initiative Effort | Vancouver Mayor Calls for Marijuana Legalization | Marijuana Politics Hits French Presidential Race -- Jospin Plays It Both Ways | DRCNet Files FOIA Request for Justice Department List of 52 Internet Drug Menace Web Sites | Alerts: HEA, Bolivia, DEA Hemp Ban, SuperBowl Ad, Ecstasy Legislation, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana | The Reformer's Calendar

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