Federal appellate judges showed contempt Tuesday for a government policy allowing the eviction of low-income housing tenants for their family members' drug activities even if the tenant was unaware of such illegalities. An 11-member panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments here over the Department of Housing and Urban Development regulation, which applies to more than 3 million low-income tenants nationwide. A three-judge panel of the same circuit voted 2-1 in favor of HUD's 1991 policy, but the court abandoned that decision last month and called for a hearing with a full panel of judges.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt was dismayed over HUD's policy of allowing evictions even if a family member or guest smoked marijuana in "Yankee Stadium" and then went to the HUD tenant's home.
"Is that a reason to evict grandmas?" Reinhardt asked.
Government attorney Howard Scher said such an eviction was plausible.
Judge Ronald M. Gould asked if a disabled tenant whose caregiver smoked marijuana in the parking lot was grounds for the tenant's eviction. "Can they be evicted?" he asked.
Scher replied in the affirmative. "Congress gave a pretty broad tool here," he said. "There is no innocent tenant defense afforded."
Other judges asked similar questions and appeared troubled with the government's position that tenants could be evicted even if they had no knowledge of the drug activity.
The case reached the appeals court after U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer barred the Oakland Housing Authority from evicting four tenants in 1998 in one of the first rulings in the nation against the HUD policy. Breyer said evictions of "innocent" tenants did not appear to be authorized by federal law and would not discourage drug crimes.
But a three-member panel of the appeals court said in February the policy was legal and aimed at "preventing tenants from turning a blind eye to the conduct of a household member or guest."
The four tenants in the Oakland case have been allowed to keep their apartments.