Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Friday, August 26, 2016

"Forced out of a home over a marijuana joint"

Many opponents of significant marijuana reforms are often quick to assert that nobody really ever gets in any trouble simply for smoking a joint and that we need not and should not support marijuana legalization because practically speaking marijuana use is functionally decriminalized.  Not surprisingly, these kinds of statements typically come from privileged, upper-middle class persons who personally do not know anyone who has experienced any troubles for minor marijuana activities.  But, as this new lengthy Washington Post article highlights (running under the headline that I used as the title for this post), even in a jurisdiction like the District of Columbia with reformed marijuana laws, a single joint can sometimes lead to a lot of trouble for some individuals.  Here are the basic details:

For eight years, Rajuawn Middleton, an assistant at a major downtown law firm, lived in a four-bedroom, red-brick home she rented on a quiet, tree-lined street in Northeast Washington — until she was forced out over a few cigarettes containing a “green leafy substance.”

In March 2014 police arrested her adult son on charges of possessing a handgun outside a nightclub. He had not lived with Middleton for years, but two weeks later D.C. police looking for more guns raided her home. The routine search placed Middleton in the grip of an indiscriminate bureaucratic mechanism known as nuisance abatement, a mild-sounding term for a process that has had harsh and disproportionate consequences for Middleton and other District residents.

Middleton said a dozen officers stormed in as she and her husband were helping their 8-year-old son with his homework. Police handcuffed the couple, cut open a mattress and dumped food on the floor, she said. The search turned up three cigarettes; Middleton said only one of them was a joint of marijuana. No firearms were found. No one was charged.

A week later, the D.C. attorney general’s office deemed the house a “drug-related nuisance” in a form letter sent to Middleton’s landlord. “The fear and intimidation that results from these activities inhibit normal interactions among neighbors and interfere with their right to use and enjoy their property,” said the letter signed by Assistant Attorney General Rashee Raj Kumar. The letter cited a 1999 law that gives broad power to city officials to sue property owners who fail to stop illegal activity at their properties. The landlord moved to evict. Middleton moved out.

During the past three years, city officials sent out about 450 nuisance-abatement letters to landlords and property owners, the vast majority aimed at ousting tenants accused of felony gun or drug crimes, including many bona fide drug dealers. But in doing so the District has also ensnared about three dozen people who were charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession or faced no charges at all, a Washington Post review of the letters has found.

The attorney general’s office in January sent a nuisance letter to one property over one gram of marijuana, a legal amount of the drug in the District. As a result, the property company forced a grandmother out of her Southwest Washington apartment, records show. The Post found that some cases were driven by an assembly line of government agencies that merely processed paperwork and failed to differentiate between dangerous felons and people such as Middleton and the grandmother in Southwest....

The D.C. Council passed the Drug-, Firearm-, or Prostitution-Related Nuisance Abatement Act in the late 1990s, when officials were grappling with the aftermath of the crack-cocaine epidemic. For years, drug dealers had used neglected properties across the city to store and sell narcotics and weapons, making them havens for drugs, violent crime or prostitution. Modeling the law after zero-tolerance policing policies in New York, council members gave city attorneys and community groups power to sue landlords who failed to combat illegal activity at their properties. The broadly worded law can cover any property where police have served a search warrant for drugs, weapons or prostitution, or that has prompted repeated complaints from neighbors.

Police search thousands of properties each year, identifying between 100 and 200 per year as potential nuisances, records show. Police did not provide The Post with any written guidelines or policy for how they flag properties as nuisances. A police spokesman said supervisors select the ones where people “have engaged in drug trafficking, the sale of weapons, or prostitution.”...

In the majority of cases reviewed by The Post, city officials targeted serious offenders. In one case from 2013, police raided an apartment in Washington’s Dupont Park neighborhood and uncovered 548 grams of crack, 22 grams of heroin and five guns. The attorney general deemed the property a drug and firearm nuisance and told the landlord to take action. The landlord sued the tenants, and they moved out.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/marijuana_law/2016/08/forced-out-of-a-home-over-a-marijuana-joint.html

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