WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court upheld the government's strict "one strike and you're out" policy Tuesday for residents of public housing, ruling that even innocent tenants can be evicted if a family member or guest is caught with drugs on or near a housing project.
In a unanimous decision on a case filed by a group of tenants from Oakland, the justices said Congress was entitled to adopt a zero-tolerance policy to rid public housing of drugs and crime.
Tenants who are caught with drugs in their apartments are subject to eviction, even for a first-time offense. Moreover, an entire family can be evicted if one person is caught with drugs--even if the offender is blocks away and if the head of the household knew nothing of the wrongdoing.
An injunction had allowed the elderly tenants from Oakland to remain in their units with the case pending. But three of the renters now face eviction because of drug use by relatives and, in one case, a caretaker.
Willie Lee, a 75-year-old disabled grandmother, said she does not know where she will go. She emerged from her unit long enough Tuesday to issue a statement, saying: "I didn't do anything wrong. And I don't want to be homeless."
Lee's grandson was caught smoking marijuana in a nearby parking lot.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said the "strict liability" policy serves two useful purposes: It puts all tenants on notice they can be removed if they do not prevent drug use by their family members. And it protects law-abiding families from crime and violence in the projects.
Drug users and drug crime are "a threat to other residents and the [housing] project," Rehnquist said. "With drugs leading to murders, muggings and other forms of violence against tenants ... it was reasonable for Congress to permit no-fault evictions in order to provide ... low-income housing that is decent, safe and free from illegal drugs."
Rehnquist also said that nothing in the Constitution prevents public housing authorities from enforcing this policy. Tenants are on notice of the rule because it is written into their lease, he pointed out.
Tuesday's ruling marked the latest clash between the liberal federal appeals court in California and the more conservative Supreme Court.
Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the four Oakland tenants.
The mentally disabled daughter of Pearlie Rucker, 63, was found with cocaine three blocks from her mother's apartment. (Oakland officials later revoked Rucker's eviction after her daughter was arrested and removed from her home.)
Like grandmother Willie Lee, Barbara Hill, 63, faces eviction because her grandson was caught smoking marijuana in a nearby parking lot.
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Herman Walker, a 78-year-old stroke victim, could also lose his home because his in-home care worker was found with drug paraphernalia, said Anne Tamiko Omura, an attorney with the Eviction Defense Center in Oakland.
Walker spent part of the day Tuesday at the hospital and had tired of talking to reporters about his case, Omura said.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, the brother of Justice Stephen Breyer, handed down an order blocking the evictions of the Oakland tenants.
Upholding his order, the 9th Circuit judges set out an "innocent tenants" exception to the eviction policy. Housing authorities may not oust tenants who "did not know or have any reason to know" of the illegal drug activity by their family members or friends, the appeals court said on a 7-4 vote.
But the Supreme Court agreed to hear the joint appeals filed by the U.S. Department of Housing and the Oakland Housing Authority (HUD vs. Rucker, 00-1770).
With Justice Breyer recused from the case, his colleagues voted 8 to 0 to reverse the appeals court and reject the "innocent tenants" exception.
Pleased with the outcome, housing officials said they need the authority to evict crime-ridden families. Eviction is not automatic, but depends on the circumstances, they said.
"We look at each incident on a case-by-case basis. We do not immediately kick out someone until we know all the circumstances," said Gary Lafayette, a lawyer for the Oakland Public Authority.
Under federal regulations, all public housing offices put clauses in leases that warn tenants they can be evicted for drugs or criminal activity, he said. "The true beneficiaries are individuals who live in public housing and want to see the drugs and criminal activity eradicated," Lafayette said. "They are the truly innocent tenants."
However, the San Francisco lawyer who represented the tenants facing eviction questioned whether it is fair or wise to punish a person who has done nothing wrong.
"This may sound fine in the abstract, but what sense does it make if a 67-year-old woman is in danger of losing her home because she took in her grandchild and the child did something wrong?" said Paul Renne, a lawyer for three of the plaintiffs. "This seems to say again: If you're poor and drugs are involved, anything goes."