SAN FRANCISCO — Public housing officials can no longer evict tenants simply because members of their household or guests illegally used drugs, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The 7-4 decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an eviction policy announced by former President Bill Clinton in 1996.
Under the Department of Housing and Urban Development regulation, tenants could be evicted if their relatives or guests used drugs or committed other drug-related crimes, even if the tenants were unaware of the illegal activity.
Housing activists say thousands of low-income tenants nationwide have been booted out of public housing under the "one strike and you're out" policy.
Although Wednesday's ruling is binding only in the nine Western states covered by the 9th Circuit, tenant advocates predicted that it will shape how courts elsewhere rule on the policy.
"This will have a substantial impact nationwide," said Catherine Bishop, a staff attorney for the National Housing Law Project. "And hopefully, housing authorities will wake up and realize they cannot evict innocent tenants."
California has more than 300,000 units of federal housing for low-income residents. Four tenants of the Oakland Housing Authority challenged the federal policy in 1998 after they received eviction notices.
One of them, Pearlie Rucker, 63, had been in public housing since 1985. She was living with a mentally disabled daughter, two grandchildren and a great-granddaughter when the housing authority informed her that she would be evicted.
The reason: Rucker's daughter was found with cocaine three blocks from their apartment.
Willie Lee, 71, and Barbara Hill, 63, also received eviction notices after their grandsons who lived with them were caught smoking marijuana together in an apartment complex garage.
Herman Walker, a disabled 75-year-old, was told he would be evicted because a caretaker and guests in his apartment were found with cocaine.
A federal trial judge in 1988 issued an order blocking the evictions, but a three-member panel of the 9th Circuit overturned it last year. The tenants appealed to the full Court of Appeals.
Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, writing for the court Wednesday, said Congress never intended to evict innocent residents of public housing when it passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.
In many public housing projects, "innocent tenants live barricaded behind doors, in fear for their safety and the safety of their children," Hawkins wrote in Rucker vs. Davis, No. 98-16322. "What these tenants may not realize is that, under existing policies of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, they should add another fear to their list: becoming homeless if a household member or guest engages in criminal drug activity on or off the tenant's property, even if the tenant did not know of or have any reason to know of such activity."
The court majority examined the wording of the federal law and concluded that HUD had misinterpreted it.
Judge Joseph T. Sneed, writing for the dissenters, argued that the law permitted housing authorities to evict tenants regardless of whether they knew of the crime.
The policy was intended as a strong deterrent that would allow tenants to reclaim projects from drug dealers and other criminals, Sneed said.
"To require proof of knowledge on the part of the tenant of the criminal activity of a guest is impractical," Sneed wrote. "Proper authorities would seldom, if ever, discover the tenant seated with the drug-using guest or while the latter engaged in other drug-related criminal acts."
A spokeswoman for HUD declined to comment on the decision, saying the agency was reviewing it. Gary T. Lafayette, a lawyer for the Oakland Housing Authority, said no decision had been made about a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The federal law was designed to ensure that "children who reside in public housing can play outside just as other children do without being approached by drug dealers or becoming victims of random acts of crime," Lafayette said.
"The refusal of the court to enforce the statute makes it more difficult to provide that type of living environment for those children," he said.
But Alan Schlosser, managing attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said evicting tenants who were unaware of drug use by others would not deter crime.