The US Supreme Court has given its endorsement to a potentially powerful if somewhat indiscriminate weapon in the war on drugs.
In a unanimous ruling yesterday, the nation's highest court upheld a provision of federal law that permits public-housing authorities to evict longtime tenants for the drug-related activity of family members or guests even when the tenants didn't know about it.
"We hold that Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue," writes Chief Justice William Rehnquist in an 11-page decision. Federal law "requires lease terms that give local public housing authorities the discretion to terminate the lease of a tenant when a member of the household or a guest engages in drug-related activity, regardless of whether the tenant knew, or should have known, of the drug-related activity."
The ruling makes clear that public-housing authorities have the power to insist that their tenants play an active role in helping to wage the war on drugs including policing their own family members and guests to ensure they do not engage in drug-related activities.
Many public-housing projects have become havens of drug activity and violent crime. Congress passed the tough eviction law in an effort to help communities wrest control of their neighborhoods from drug dealers and other criminals and restore public housing to a level where it is decent, safe, and crime free.
"There is an obvious reason why Congress would have permitted local public-housing authorities to conduct no-fault evictions," the chief justice writes. "Regardless of knowledge, a tenant who cannot control drug crime by a household member ... is a threat to other residents."
The decision reverses an opinion by the full Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals, which questioned whether Congress intended to permit housing authorities such broad powers of eviction. The San Francisco-based court found that tenants were protected by the same type of "innocent owner" provision that safeguards property owners from arbitrary action in government forfeiture cases. The appeals court also said the case raised serious due-process issues.
The Supreme Court pointedly reversed or knocked down every argument offered by the appeals-court judges. In fact, Justice Rehnquist spends more time in his opinion refuting the appeals court's view of the case than responding to the arguments made by the parties. In a sense, the decision appears to be the judicial equivalent of the appeals court being taken to the woodshed by the chief justice.
At one point, the appeals court had suggested in its ruling that reading the housing law to permit innocent evictions would lead to "absurd results."
"It is not 'absurd' that a local housing authority may sometimes evict a tenant who had no knowledge of the drug-related activity," Rehnquist writes, noting that such provisions are common landlord-tenant law. "Strict liability maximizes deterrence and eases enforcement difficulties."
The decision arises out of an attempt by the housing authority in Oakland, Calif., to evict four longtime residents because of drug activity of family members or guests.
Pearlie Rucker, Barbara Hill, Willie Lee, and Herman Walker fought the eviction notices in court, arguing in part that they had no way of knowing about the drug activities cited by housing-authority personnel.
Ms. Lee and Ms. Hill were ordered out of their homes because their grandchildren were seen in the parking lot with marijuana. Ms. Rucker received her eviction notice because her daughter was seen by a housing-authority officer with cocaine and a crack pipe several blocks from the housing project. Mr. Walker, a disabled senior citizen, was ordered out because his live-in caregiver was found in possession of cocaine and a cocaine pipe.
"The statute does not require the eviction of any tenant who violated the lease provision," the chief justice writes. "Instead, it entrusts that decision to the local public housing authorities, who are in the best position to take account of, among other things, the degree to which the housing project suffers from rampant drug-related or violent crime."