WASHINGTON – When Deborah Williams’ 14-year-old son, Antoine, got caught two years ago with a baggie of marijuana, his arrest could have gotten the Williams family kicked out of their public housing in Laurel.
That’s because Williams had agreed in her lease that if she or anyone living with her in the federally subsidized unit at Kimberly Gardens got involved with drugs, she would be thrown out — no questions asked.
Williams, however, is still living at the project. She has appealed her eviction to Maryland’s highest court, claiming it is unfair for the Housing Authority for Prince George’s County to throw out her entire family if she was not aware of her child’s drug involvement.
The case has been in Maryland courts for almost two years, but is currently on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court considers a similar case from Oakland, Calif.
In that case, four senior citizens are arguing that the government should stop evicting elderly public housing residents who do not know their relatives or caregivers are using drugs.
“What the court does in this case in PG County could be waiting on what the Supreme Court will decide,” said Debra Gardner, legal director at the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, which is representing Williams.
Williams and the county’s housing authority first butted heads in 1998, when her oldest son, Dion, was busted for setting up a cocaine sale between a local dealer and an undercover cop.
Housing directors moved to evict Williams, but agreed in May 1999 to let the family stay as long as no one living there got caught in “drug-related criminal activity” within one year, court documents showed.
But on March 1, 2000, Antoine was hanging out at Kimberly Gardens when police approached. “He tossed several objects on the ground, including a baggie containing marijuana,” documents showed.
The housing authority again moved to evict Williams. She appealed, and the Prince George’s County Circuit Court ruled that because Antoine was a minor, his case would be handled by the juvenile justice system and he therefore was “not involved in criminal activity per se.”
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed the circuit court ruling in November 2001 and directed the lower court in such cases to consider whether the tenant has done “everything possible to curtail the illegal acts of the household member” in deciding whether to evict.
Gardner calls that an “impossible standard” and has asked the Court of Appeals to review it.
“The court has set a very high bar,” Gardner said. “People have to take every reasonable measure — the court even alluded to turning one’s children into the police as an approach one might take.
“Some parents might take that approach, but others might try to get their kids into a drug counseling program,” she said. “Would that be enough to stay in one’s housing? That’s not clear from court’s ruling.”
But an attorney for the Prince George’s County Housing Authority said the most recent decision puts an additional burden on the government to prove whether a renter knew about the drug activity in the first place.
“If anything, you’re setting a standard for the housing authority that’s difficult to meet,” Alberta Holloway said. “It’s a difficult thing for the housing authority to prove that she did or didn’t know. It’s an impossible standard because everyone’s going to say, I didn’t know my child was using drugs.”
Holloway stressed that “one-strike” measures need to be in place for the good of the community.
“What you place at issue is every other housing tenant that has to put up with this kind of activity,” she said.