A nationwide federal program to evict public housing tenants suspected of drug activity has been stopped by a federal judge who says such evictions without prior notice "constitute a harm of major proportions."
U.S. District Court Judge Richard L. Williams in Richmond, Va., yesterday permanently barred the government from taking such eviction actions and also ordered that all public housing tenants be sent letters saying they may not be evicted without prior notice and a hearing unless the government can prove that a serious emergency exists.
Jack Kemp, secretary of housing and urban development, announced the 23-city program last May as part of his crackdown on drug use in public housing projects. It was to use civil asset forfeiture laws to seize the leases of tenants, bypassing the normal eviction process. Such eviction actions did not require that criminal charges be filed against leaseholders.
Several such eviction have occurred in the Baltimore area.
Williams said the evictions violated the constitutional right to due process. "To be rendered homeless for several months or more while a civil forfeiture action is pending may be traumatic and permanently damaging," Williams wrote. "Under the civil forfeiture statutes, the government cannot act in a manner which irrevocably alters a claimant's right to their property before winning a hearing on the merits."
Williams' ruling was hailed as a major victory by public housing activists, who had originally challenged the HUD program last June.
"It's a vindication of fundamental principles of law in the United States," said Florence Roisman, an attorney with the National Housing Law Project, which filed the lawsuit along with Central Virginia Legal Services. "It protects the most basic rights of people who live in the United States."
Department of Justice spokesman Michael Robinson said yesterday that the department was studying the opinion. He would not rule out the possibility of an appeal. A HUD spokeswoman, Carol Nyce, said the agency would not comment until given a chance to study the opinion.
Williams' ruling said that the government may evict tenants without notice and a prior hearing only in extraordinary cases when an important public interest exists and there is a special need for prompt action. But he said that such circumstances would rarely exist in a case involving someone's home.