Court to Rule on Zero-Tolerance Drug Policy in Public Housing Projects

The Supreme Court is set to rule on a zero-tolerance policy intended to purge drugs from public housing projects.

The court agreed Tuesday to review the national one-strike-and-you're-out rule that critics say unfairly punishes relatives of troublemakers.

The court accepted an appeal from a 63-year-old great-grandmother that arose from the policy endorsed by the Clinton administration in 1996 and by the Bush administration this year.

The Bush administration wants to court to overturn a lower federal appeals court, which called the policy needlessly harsh. The ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made the one-strike policy unenforceable in the nine states plus Guam covered by the California-based court.

The zero tolerance policy allows entire families to be evicted if one member is caught once with narcotics, regardless of where an arrest was made or whether anyone else in the family was aware of the crime.

Supporters of the initiative say the fear of losing a home is a powerful deterrent and that law-abiding families are on waiting lists for public housing. One-strike eviction laws have been on the books since 1988, but were spottily enforced before then-President Clinton made tougher national standards a campaign-year pledge.

"For some, one strike and you're out sounds like hardball. Well, it is," Clinton said in announcing the policy in 1996. "If you mess up your community, you have to turn in your key."

The Department of Housing and Urban Development followed up with an enforcement program that stated a tenant could not avoid eviction simply by claiming ignorance of the crime or an inability to stop it.

That year, Congress also toughened eviction rules to include drug activity outside the public housing unit.

Evictions rose 84 percent in the first six months of the tougher 1996 policy, an analysis by The Associated Press at the time showed.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development does not have recent statistics on people who have lost their government-subsidized housing because of drugs.

At issue for the high court is whether Congress intended the rule to be as far-reaching as HUD and local public housing agencies have made it.

The 9th Circuit ruling in January arose from eviction orders issued to four tenants in Oakland public housing.

Pearlie Rucker got an eviction notice after her mentally disabled daughter was caught with cocaine three blocks from the apartment she shared with her mother and other family members.

In the other three cases, eviction notices came to an elderly person whose grandchild or hired nurse was the drug abuser.

The four went to federal court to block enforcement of the one-strike rule in Oakland unless the housing agency had proof that a tenant personally used drugs, or knew of the drug crime beforehand and had the ability to prevent it.

The tenants won, but a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit overruled the first court. Then, the full appeals court reversed that finding and upheld the original court's order blocking enforcement.

"The decision of the court of appeals drains much of the meaning and significance," from the 1996 law and HUD's rules for enforcing it, the Justice Department wrote in asking the high court to get involved.

"The result is to deprive public housing authorities of an important tool to achieve safe and livable public housing, and to deprive public housing tenants of protection that Congress found to be of central importance for their security and well-being."

Lawyers for the four tenants argued that the Supreme Court should not get involved at this stage, because there has never been a trial on the merits of the issue in lower court.

The cases are Department of Housing and Urban Development v. Rucker, 00-1770.