WASHINGTON – Emma Goff hoped the Supreme Court would see things her way.
Goff, a neighborhood activist and grandmother of four, wanted the court to uphold a law aimed at keeping drugs out of federally subsidized projects like Webb Lane Apartments in St. Michael’s, where she has lived for six years.
“People here — my neighbors — are intimidated by dealers, and they close the door, put the shades down and turn a deaf ear,” Goff said. “If you want to raise your children in a safe environment, you can’t do that. You have to have these rules.”
The Supreme Court agreed, ruling Tuesday that the government does not overstep its bounds as a landlord when it enforces a “one strike, you’re out” law. The policy requires housing managers to include zero-tolerance wording in their leases so they can evict entire families the first time even one member uses, buys or sells drugs anywhere, even if the primary renter does not know about the drug activity.
“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 public and other federally assisted low-income housing that is decent, safe and free from illegal drugs,” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the unanimous court, ruling in a case from California.
Maryland housing officials welcomed the decision, saying that publicity about the case will reiterate their intolerance of drugs and their willingness to evict for any drug offense. It also leaves in them an important weapon for fighting drug dealers and addicts.
But the high court’s decision does not seem likely to equalize the law’s uneven application across the state. A recent Capital News Service survey found that public landlords in one part of Maryland were up to seven times more likely than landlords elsewhere to toss out tenants because of drugs.
Housing directors Tuesday were not convinced that the Supreme Court decision would reach down to some local judges who deny “one-strike” eviction orders when primary renters are not aware of drug use by their children or visitors.
“This ruling could prove useful to us because of a few cases that have come up recently here, but that’s not to say every judge will be influenced by the Supreme Court,” said Kay Howeth, executive director of the St. Michael’s Housing Authority.
Nor will the ruling alter the personal policies of some housing officials. Laurie Mason, executive director of the Frostburg Housing Authority, plans to continue operating on a case-by-case basis and giving warnings — rather than eviction notices — to renters who do not seem to know about their family members’ drug use.
“We have zero tolerance when it comes to folks, too, but we’re a little more flexible,” Mason said. “We’re really a very small housing authority, and (drugs are) such a small problem with us. I don’t see our ideas or the way we handle these things changing because of this.”
One case pending in Maryland’s Court of Appeals, however, is likely to be shaped by the Supreme Court ruling. In that case, a Laurel woman is contesting her March 2000 eviction from Prince George’s County public housing after her 14- year-old son was busted with marijuana.
Deborah Williams says she should not be kicked out of her Kimberly Gardens apartment because she did not know her child was carrying a baggie of drugs in his pocket.
In November 2001, the Court of Special Appeals sided with Williams. It said that in drug-eviction cases, judges should consider whether the tenant has done “everything possible to curtail the illegal acts of the household member” in deciding whether to evict.
An appeal to the Court of Appeals has been on hold pending the Supreme Court’s decision, which makes the tenant’s level of knowledge of drug activity “irrelevant” to the move for eviction.
Williams’ attorney was considering how to proceed after Tuesday’s ruling.
“We’re very disappointed in the decision,” Debra Gardner said. “This will not lead to decreasing crime in public housing. It will result in the eviction of innocent people.”
But the housing authority’s attorney said Tuesday’s decision boosts the government’s argument that the “one-strike” law should be strictly enforced for the good of the neighborhood.
“I think it bodes well for us,” Alberta Holloway said. “They make the point that really is at issue — whether or not the rest of the community has to withstand that kind of behavior — and the court says they should not.”
That message was echoed by Doris Sarumi, who oversees housing authorities in Glenarden and College Park.
“I think it really sends a good message because as housing authorities, we’re always getting opposition to where we can put up housing,” Sarumi said. “You know the general sentiment is that as soon as low-income housing is coming, then here come the drugs.
“I hope that this will strengthen the position of the housing authority,” she said.