Newsbrief: Rhode Island Bill Allowing Eviction for Drug Possession on the Move 5/9/03

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While some states are cutting sentences and looking at other ways of calling a truce in the war on drugs, legislators in Rhode Island are busy crafting new ways to punish drug users. A bill that unanimously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week would allow landlords to evict tenants without notice or appeal if so much as a single marijuana cigarette were found on the property. The provision would apply whether the tenant was aware of the drugs' presence or not, and it could be invoked if a tenant were arrested on or near the property if the landlord can show that the tenant was in possession of drugs at the time.

The measure, Senate Bill 479, was sponsored by Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick) and drafted with the assistance of Providence lawyer Paul Ragosta, who frequently represents landlords in housing disputes. It amends existing landlord-tenant statutes, which allow landlords to evict tenants who use the property for the manufacture, sale or delivery of drugs or who turn the place into a "narcotics nuisance."

SB 479 tightens the language of that law by saying tenants or authorized occupants may not "have, keep, or allow" drugs on the property "of any type or quantity... whether or not with the knowledge of the tenant."

In his testimony before the committee, Ragosta said current law does not provided "a meaningful remedy when there is drug activity in housing, particularly in low-income housing and public housing." He also related a story of how he was blocked from engineering the eviction of a tenant for smoking marijuana by a judge who ruled that more than one instance of drug activity was required, a conclusion Ragosta called "absurd." A single drug offense should be grounds for eviction, he told the committee. While he acknowledged that someone could lose his homestead because a guest smoked a joint at a party, the "balancing of interests" justified such outcomes. "The policy decision is that the drug problem is so severe that this sort of powerful tool is necessary," Ragosta told the committee.

The bill has not gone unopposed. Advocates for tenants and low-income groups have criticized the bill as overly broad and likely to lead to an increase in homelessness. But that didn't stop the Judiciary Committee from approving the measure on a 5-0 vote. It now heads for action in the full Senate.

Read the bill online at:
http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/billtext/billtext03/senatetext03/s0479.pdf

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