Sunday, June 1, 2008

Collateral Damage in the "War on Drugs"

This article, from last week's WaPo, shows the perhaps unintended consequences of the feds "one strike" policy of evicting the families of those convicted of drug possession from public housing.

In Nebraska, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana doesn't even entitle you to a public defender as the penalty, at least for the time being, is a $100 fine. But, such a conviction can ruin federal student loan eligibility and lead to the possessor's family being evicted from federal housing.

The article, linked to above, tells a horror story about what happens when the grandson of a "pillar of the community" gets picked up for possessing a small amount of pot.

When D.C. police allegedly found a small amount of marijuana in her grandson's bedroom last year, Frances Johnson had to take the rap with him. As a tenant in a federally subsidized apartment, she is subject to eviction for any criminal act that occurs under her roof -- whether she knows about it or not.

Within weeks of the grandson's arrest, her landlord and the D.C. Housing Authority began legal proceedings under the federal government's "one strike and you're out" policy.

That might have been the end of the story. But Johnson, 68, has taken a stand, fighting back even as she battles cancer and diabetes, her stellar reputation for community service acting as a bulwark against a law that can easily steamroll vulnerable, innocent, low-income tenants.

Several D.C. Council members, noting her volunteer work on behalf of at-risk children, wrote letters of support to the D.C. Housing Authority. The agency eventually reversed itself and yesterday recertified Johnson's eligibility for the Housing Choice Voucher Program.

Great, the system works, it's tempting to assume. Not so fast, however.

But the landlord, NDC Realty, still has two eviction lawsuits pending against her under the "one strike" law. She's far from being home safe.

The eviction episode began when Johnson's grandson, Ernest, age 24, "was arrested on the streets while gambling, pleaded guilty to marijuana possession and was sentenced to four months in jail." Ernest works in a grocery store and, according to the article, the store "is holding his job until his release next month."

But two weeks after Ernest's arrest, Johnson's apartment was raided and a "cuff link sized box" was found with pot inside. The charges were later dropped (making me wonder whether it was a warrantless search?) but "the episode was enough to trigger the "one-strike" a provision of the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act, passed by Congress in 1988 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002."

Julie Becker, a lawyer with the D.C. Legal Aid Society, said the federal law permits but does not require eviction for all criminal activity. In testimony before the D.C. Council last year, she accused the D.C. Housing Authority of taking "an extremely zealous approach" to the law, citing attempts to evict an 82-year-old man based on the activity of his son and grandson as well as a woman based on a fight between her teenage granddaughter and a neighbor

"However this ends for Ms. Johnson, though," O'Donnell said, "the sins of the grandson will continue to be visited upon grandmothers like her under the one-strike law.".

Does it seems absurd that a grandmother stricken with diabetes can be evicted from federal housing even if it is shown she was unaware that her caretaker grandson had a little pot in the apartment?

It does to me, but not to the author of the opinion upholding the practice. Then Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority in HUD v. Rucker wrote that:

"It is not “absurd” that a local housing authority may sometimes evict a tenant who had no knowledge of the drug-related activity. Such “no-fault” eviction is a common “incident of tenant responsibility under normal landlord-tenant law and practice.” ... Strict liability maximizes deterrence and eases enforcement difficulties."

Dahlia Lithwick, who now writes a column for Newsweek, wrote an article at the time appropriately entitled "Too Old To Narc: The justices toss their bingo buddies into the street."

What do you think?

(and don't all try to reply at once as the number of comments this blog receives is often overwhelming!)

1 comment:

Donald Sheldon said...

Sad to say when you accept any Federal benefit they own you. I am for the re-leagalization of all so called "Drugs". We must end the "War on Drugs" and send the POW's home with their rights reinstated. This war on our own children is so stupid it scares me and I am fearless! '

Donald Sheldon