Court upholds public housing restrictions

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

The Associated PressRICHMOND, Va. -- The Supreme Court ruled Monday that governments may bar unauthorized visitors from public housing projects in high-crime areas, rejecting a Virginia man's claim that his arrest for trespassing violated his right to free expression.

The policy does not punish people for their speech, the court wrote.

"The rules apply to strollers, loiterers, drug dealers, roller skaters, bird watchers, soccer players, and others not engaged in constitutionally protected conduct," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the 9-0 court.

Kevin Hicks had said he was dropping off diapers when he was arrested in 1999. He had been arrested twice before for trespassing and barred from the complex -- home to his mother and two children.

The Virginia Supreme Court had held the trespassing ordinance was unconstitutional, on the grounds that it harmed people who had legitimate, free-speech reasons for visiting public housing. Justices overturned that decision.

The policy banning unauthorized visitors from Richmond's low-income housing project were put into place in 1997 after numerous futile efforts to curb rampant drug dealing and gun violence there. It designates public streets and sidewalks around housing projects as private property, owned by the quasi-governmental Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

The area was not gated, but the boundaries were marked with signs warning people that they faced prosecution for unauthorized visits. Police are authorized to banish people from the property who do not live there or have "no legitimate business or social purpose."

Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore said the ruling helps police "level the playing field" on crime by allowing police to employ the same methods for the poor in public housing that the wealthy enjoy in gated subdivisions.

"It strengthens the hand of law enforcement to protect the residents of public housing the way we would anyone else," Kilgore said.

Nationwide, public housing authorities have been striving to combat crime. About 1 million families live in public housing.

"I hope it means the people who run public housing projects will be able to take steps to protect residents from having their homes turned into a crime-infested sewer," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

Steven Benjamin, a lawyer for Hicks, said he was encouraged that the ruling left open the possibility that the law could be challenged on other grounds, namely vagueness.

"We attacked this from the beginning on all kinds of constitutional grounds, including the right to associate with your family and the fact that criminal laws can't be so vague that people have to guess at their meaning," Benjamin said.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Virginia Supreme Court to decide on those related issues.

Supreme Court:

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: