Lawyers for the Bush administration urged a federal court in Baltimore yesterday to allow authorities to evict public housing tenants -- at any time of the day or night, and without notice or hearing -- if anyone in the household is suspected of dealing drugs.
The administration was appealing a December 1990 court order that barred it from carrying out a plan to raid the apartments of suspected dealers in 23 cities, including Baltimore, and evict their tenants immediately under the property forfeiture provisions of federal drug trafficking laws.
During the first legal battle, aides to U.S. Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp had argued that such quick and dramatic evictions would send a message to other tenants and help rid public housing of drugs. But Legal Aid lawyers said that it would be unconstitutional to evict tenants without first letting them challenge the government's case at a hearing, and a lower court in Richmond agreed.
Yesterday, the administration pressed its case before a three-judge panel from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which usually sits in Richmond but elected to hear the case here.
Robert V. Zener, a Justice Department lawyer, said the government should be allowed to move quickly to evict "notorious" drug traffickers without first waiting for a hearing process which, he said, can take months.
He urged a streamlined process in which tenants could be evicted if a law enforcement official filed an affidavit that someone in the household was believed to be a drug violator. If tenants were wrongly accused, Mr. Zener said, they could still go to court to seek the right to return to their apartments.
But Anne Holton of the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society countered that the government's proposal could force innocent people and their families into the streets while they attempted to challenge an improper eviction.
Arguing on behalf of a team of lawyers that included several from the Legal Aid Bureau in Baltimore, Ms. Holton cited the government's record in 27 cases where tenants had been slated to be thrown out without a hearing until the program was halted by the lower court. Federal officials have since acknowledged that at least eight of those cases were based on faulty information.
In one South Carolina case, the eviction papers named the wrong tenant. In another in Connecticut, a woman who notified police of her husband's drug dealing was nonetheless targeted for eviction herself. It is because of the potential for such mistakes that tenants should have the right to confront their accusers before being evicted, Ms. Holton argued.
A decision in the case is not expected for several months.
Tenant groups who have been fighting the administration's proposal, including Baltimore's Resident Advisory Board, and more than a dozen tenant leaders from Baltimore attended yesterday's hearing. Afterward, several said they were outraged the government's plan -- and they stressed that their anger had nothing to do with a tolerance for drug traffickers.