Court embraces hard line on drugs in federal housing

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court reinforced a hard line against drugs Tuesday, backing rules that permit eviction of families from federally subsidized housing if any family member or guest is involved in narcotics.

The decision came a week after justices indicated they were ready to allow wider drug-testing in schools, and they are also handling narcotics cases this year that could condone government intrusion for public safety.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, quoting Congress, wrote in the housing decision that "with drugs leading to murders, muggings, and other forms of violence against tenants," aggressive eviction policies are reasonable. He also cited Congress' desire to end "the reign of terror" in public housing.

The court said that public housing directors could evict entire families for drug use by one member, regardless of whether the use was on public housing property or if anyone else knew about it.

The losers were four California senior citizens who received eviction notices because of the drug use of relatives or caregivers.

Critics of the law said there is a double standard for the poor who depend on public housing.

Upcoming cases

Two more drug cases will be argued before the court next month, both at the request of the Bush administration. One could make it easier to search public transportation passengers who may be drug couriers, the other may affirm the way sentences are figured in drug cases.

"This war on drugs is being waged most viciously against the poor people," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs for the group Drug Policy Alliance. "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."

Jonathan Macey, a professor at Cornell University Law School, said the court's decisions "give legitimacy to the war on drugs." Regardless of the impact, it's "symbolic and morale boosting" when the court affirms the government's drug tools, he said.

The so-called "one-strike" housing provision at issue in Tuesday's decision was part of a drug law Congress passed in 1988 amid complaints about crime in public housing. The legal challenge centered on policies developed to follow the law.

"It's not fair. It's not right," said 79-year-old Herman Walker, one of the four senior citizens who could be evicted now.

The ruling is a relief for housing leaders, who argued that without eviction power drug problems would worsen in public housing.

"It is not absurd that a local housing authority may sometimes evict a tenant who had no knowledge of drug-related activity," Rehnquist wrote for the 8-0 court.

'It's that tone'

The residents in this case were from Oakland, Calif., but public housing groups nationwide have followed the case.

Paris R. Baldacci, a professor at Cardozo School of Law, said the Supreme Court seemed swayed by crime concerns, not fear of hurting 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 ... instead of getting the target who might be causing the reign of terror, this is sweeping up all people who may have a drug problem," Baldacci said.

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