WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court yesterday upheld public housing agencies' "zero tolerance" policy on illegal drug use, ruling that a tenant can be evicted if a family member or guest uses drugs - even if the tenant did not know about it.
The court ruled, 8-0, that the housing authority in Oakland, Calif., was within its rights in moving to evict four longtime tenants whose relatives had used drugs, even if the tenants themselves could be called "innocent."
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the court, found that federal law is unambiguous in giving housing agencies the discretion to evict tenants for the drug activities of relatives and guests "whether or not the tenant knew, or should have known, about the activity."
The ruling in Department of Housing and Urban Development vs. Rucker , and Oakland Housing Authority vs. Rucker had been awaited by housing agencies and advocacy groups across the country.
The case, like similar ones that have inspired suits elsewhere, is fraught with wrenching emotional and social issues, but Rehnquist and his colleagues said the 1988 law and the intent of lawmakers was clear.
"The statute does not require the eviction of any tenant who violated the lease provision," Rehnquist wrote. "Instead, it entrusts that decision to the local public housing authorities, who are in the best position to take account of, among other things, the degree to which the housing project suffers from `rampant drug-related or violent crime.'"
Eviction of tenants who were not personally at fault is a normal part of landlord-tenant law, the ruling stated. And, citing Congress' intent regarding illegal drugs and the crime it spawns, Rehnquist wrote: "Regardless of knowledge, a tenant who `cannot control drug crime, or other criminal activities by a household member which threaten health or safety of residents, is a threat to other residents and the project.'"
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer had issued an injunction barring the eviction of the tenants, and his stance was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer took no part in the case because Judge Charles Breyer is his brother.
The case was argued before the high court last month, and some justices seemed sympathetic to the plight of the tenants. Pearlie Rucker, 63, had been living in public housing since 1985 when she was informed she would be evicted because her daughter was found with cocaine and a crack pipe three blocks from her apartment.
Willie Lee, 71, who has lived in public housing for more than 25 years, received notice of eviction after allegations that her grandson was caught smoking marijuana in the project's parking lot. The grandson of another tenant, Barbara Hill, 63, who has lived in public housing for more than 30 years, admitted smoking marijuana in the parking lot.
Herman Walker, who is 75 and disabled, had lived in public housing for 10 years when eviction proceedings began after his caregiver and two others were accused of having cocaine in his apartment. Rehnquist noted that the housing authority issued Walker two warnings before moving to evict him.
Paul T. Graziano, head of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, applauded the court's ruling.
"We are heartened by the decision of the Supreme Court, which reaffirms our contention that public housing is not the housing of last resort," Graziano said in a statement.
"We are now empowered to eradicate the scourge of drug activity in public housing communities and provide decent, safe and sanitary housing for eligible families," he added. "Public housing families deserve to live in nurturing environments free from drugs or drug-related activity and I am committed to that goal."