Friday, June 10, 2005

One strike and you're out

A six-year legal battle over the federal government’s "one strike and you’re out" rule for residents of public housing ended last month when Connie Burton packed her belongings in a U-Haul, hooked it to a borrowed car and drove away from Unit 147 in Tampa’s Robles Park complex.

The "one strike" rule is that drug possession, use or sale, other criminal activity and abuse of alcohol are grounds for eviction from public housing when committed by a tenant, household member, guest or other person under the tenant’s control.

The Tampa Housing Authority has been trying to evict Burton since 1999, when her son, then 19, was arrested on marijuana charges. Read St. Petersburg Times stories here and here. There's more if you search for 'em.

The federal district court in Tampa ruled in favor of the housing authority. So did the 11th Circuit in Atlanta here. A jury upheld her eviction in 2002. But Hillsborough County Judge Eric Myers dismissed the verdict, saying a juror had slept through much of the trial.

Finally, the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland ruled in favor of the housing authority here. (Check out Abstract Appeal's comment at the time here; scroll down to April 2, 2004.)

The "one strike" rule is controversial for many reasons. One is: Should innocent and unknowing family members be punished for the actions of other household members? I have seen many housing authorities act as though the rule requires eviction even for minor crimes -- such as a window broken by a 12-year-old -- even though the housing authority is required to "consider all relevant circumstances such as the seriousness of the case." Read it here.

The landmark Supreme Court case, HUD v. Rucker here, says that a public housing authority has discretion to evict tenants for drug-related activity of household members or guests. Under federal law, the only time eviction is mandatory is when someone is convicted of manufacturing or producing methamphetamine on the premises of federally assisted housing. Read it here and here. And I don’t think anyone has any argument with those evictions.

A year or so ago, I defended an elderly and sick woman who was being evicted from public housing because of her thirty-something son’s drug dealing. He did not live with her, but he was the only family member who could lift her out of bed. I wondered -- and argued to the court -- how much control this woman actually had over her son’s activities outside her apartment. (She got evicted anyway.)


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