The War on Drugs racks up another casualty

Milwaukee City Hous. Auth. v. Cobb, No. 2013AP2207 (Wis. Mar. 12, 2015).

Courtesy of Chuck Coker (flickr)

Courtesy of Chuck Coker (flickr)

In HUD v. Rucker, the Supreme Court held that federal law authorized the Oakland Housing Authority to evict three elderly women because their young relatives had used drugs near the women’s apartment building. The Rucker Court was interpreting 42 U.S.C. § 1437d(l)(6), a law Congress enacted in 1988 as part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. That provision requires federally funded housing authorities to use leases that provide for eviction if a tenant, a member of the tenant’s household, or the tenant’s guest engages in “drug-related criminal activity on or off [the] premises.” The Court in Rucker surely interpreted this provision correctly—which is precisely why the result is so disturbing.

This case involves the same federal law that was at issue in Rucker. Here, a public housing tenant in Milwaukee, Felton Cobb, committed the vicious crime of smoking marijuana inside his apartment. The Milwaukee housing authority brought an eviction action against him. Cobb argues that he cannot be evicted because Wisconsin law requires landlords to give tenants an opportunity “to take reasonable steps to remedy” the cause of their eviction. The housing authority responds that this state law is preempted by the same federal law that was at issue in Rucker, because that law permits eviction for a single act of illegal drug use. 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court bypasses the interesting issue of whether past drug use can ever be “remedied,” and agrees with the housing authority that the Wisconsin law is preempted. The state law, the court says, stands as an obstacle to Congress’s purpose: eliminating all drug use from public housing—even where, as here, it’s doing nobody any harm.