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1 Strike, You're Out on the Street

April 02, 2002|ARIANNA HUFFINGTON | Arianna Huffington writes a syndicated column. E-mail: arianna

In an infuriating blow to reason, logic, fairness, compassion and equal justice, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that people living in public housing can be evicted for any drug activity by any household member or guest, even if the drug use happened blocks away from the housing project and even if the tenant had no inkling that anything illegal was taking place.

Chew on that for a second. The highest judicial body in the land has said--unanimously--that it's OK to toss innocent people out of their houses for crimes they didn't commit and didn't even know about.

The generals in the drug war are getting mighty desperate--and silly.

The justices did not merely uphold the constitutionality of the "one strike and you're out" eviction policy implemented by the Clinton administration in 1996; they also rushed to its defense, calling it "reasonable."

Tell that to Herman Walker, a co-defendant in the case, a disabled 79-year-old man who now stands to lose his home because his full-time health-care worker was found with drug paraphernalia in the apartment.

Or to Pearlie Rucker, the named defendant, a 63-year-old great-grandmother who found herself facing eviction when her mentally disabled daughter was caught possessing cocaine three blocks away from Rucker's apartment (officials later revoked Rucker's eviction after she kicked her daughter out of her home).

The high court's opinion, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, tried to buttress its cold-hearted argument by claiming that so-called "no-fault" evictions are justified because drug use leads to "murders, muggings and other forms of violence."

In reality, two of the four plaintiffs in the case before the court were elderly women whose grandchildren were caught smoking marijuana in a housing project parking lot.

The ruling is a gut-wrenching reminder of just how differently America treats its rich and its poor. The multimillion-dollar homes of Beverly Hills or the Upper East Side of Manhattan have their fair share of kids struggling with drug problems.

But as concerned as these kids' parents are, you can bet that their problems are not compounded by the additional worry that the entire family will be tossed out onto the street because their kid is smoking a joint three blocks away. Why should we hold poor people to a standard many of us could never meet?

"A tenant who cannot control drug crime," wrote Rehnquist, "is a threat to other residents and the project."

I wonder if the chief justice would apply the same condemnatory logic to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who also lives in public housing and apparently was unable to control his troubled daughter.

Indeed, our political establishment, whether ensconced in governors' mansions or not, is filled with people unable to "control drug crime" by a household member.

But the politicians--including Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Reps. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), John Murtha (D-Pa.), Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego) and Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.)--weren't punished for the sins of their kids.

What's more, unlike the thousands of mostly poor and minority drug offenders who have had the book thrown at them, these lawmakers' offspring were frequently granted special treatment.

It's not surprising that poor kids are routinely sent to jail while rich kids are given a slap on the wrist and a ticket to rehab, or that poor parents are thrown out of their houses for not knowing what their kids are doing while powerful parents are given our sympathy and understanding.

But it is unjust.

Here's a thought: Why don't Kennedy and Burton call a joint Senate-House hearing on "one strike and you're out" no-fault evictions.

They can call Jeb Bush, Pearlie Rucker and their respective daughters (one who was taken to rehab, one who was taken to jail) as the first witnesses.

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