CHICAGO – A policy forcing residents in Chicago's public housing developments to submit to annual drug tests violates privacy and other constitutional rights, according to a class-action lawsuit filed Thursday that seeks a court order halting the practice, which critics say is rare nationally.
The ACLU filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Chicago on behalf of Joseph Peery, a 58-year-old resident of the Parkside of Old Town development. He doesn't use drugs, but says having to urinate into a cup once a year to renew his lease is degrading.
"He finds it humiliating and invasive, and it makes him feel stigmatized as a presumptive criminal and drug user," the lawsuit says. Peery has passed all four tests he has taken, it adds, and submits to them because he could be evicted if he refuses.
The development is in an area once known as Cabrini Green, a violence-plagued project that was a national symbol of failed public housing in the `80s and `90s. In a city plan to improve living conditions, authorities demolished Cabrini Green, replacing it with smaller units catering to low- and middle income families.
The lawsuit names the Chicago Housing Authority, or CHA, which provides public housing for more than 50,000 low-income Chicago residents. ACLU Chicago spokesman Ed Yohnka says it's one of the only public housing agencies in the nation to require such tests as a condition of qualifying for or renewing a lease.
"It is very rare," Yohnka said. "We are not aware of any other agency anywhere in the country requiring this."
CHA spokeswoman Wendy Parks released a three-sentence statement in response, saying only that public house tenants are required to "follow property rules." Reached later by phone, she declined to comment on why the rules are in place or what the objectives of the policy might be.
Residents of some public housing developments in Chicago are not subject to drugs tests, and Yohnka says it is not clear what criteria the agency employees to decide which ones are.
Yohnka also challenged the notion such testing might be a legitimate tool to minimize risks of crime, saying law enforcement operations targeting drug dealers or street gangs was the proper approach. He also argued that singling out lower income residents was not only unconstitutional, but also unfair and of no practical value.
"Whether to qualify for a mortgage subsidies or a tax deduction, you don't have to take a urine test for that," Yohnka said. "And people use drugs across race and demographics, so there's just no rational basis for this invasive policy."