By CHRISTOPHER M. MATTHEWS
ANNAPOLIS (Oct. 26, 2009) - The Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis moved earlier this month to have a civil rights lawsuit brought against it dismissed on the grounds that it functions as a private property owner and may ban anyone it chooses from public housing grounds.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland filed suit in August to challenge a policy it claims unconstitutionally prevents friends and family of residents from visiting them. The housing authority and the Annapolis Police Department, another defendant in the case, submitted the motion for dismissal or summary judgment in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County.
The current banning policy states that, "[Individuals] who are found to be detrimental to the overall quality of life for public housing residents may be banned." The policy aims to ban individuals who commit "criminal activity on or near public housing property" in order to protect residents.
But Deborah Jeon, the legal director for the ACLU of Maryland, said that while the policy sounds reasonable, in practice people who are never convicted of a crime, and sometimes not even prosecuted, are banned for three years to life from public housing. Jeon said the criteria for being put on the list are vague, and that it is nearly impossible to get off of it.
While the housing authority allows banned individuals to apply for removal from the list, they are not required to remove individuals who are acquitted or whose charges are dropped.
"You have to work very, very hard to get off of [the list]," Jeon said.
The Annapolis Housing Authority created the policy in 1994. There were 522 persons on the "banned list" in May, up from 440 in March 2008.
The housing authority pays the Annapolis Police Department $100,000 a year to enforce the policy.
When police find banned individuals on or near Annapolis public housing, the individuals can be arrested and charged with trespassing. Residents are threatened with lease violations when banned individuals are found in their homes.
According to the ACLU, all of this amounts to a violation of the constitutional rights of those on the list and the residents they seek to visit.
But the defendants' lawyers argue the housing authority's "trespass policy" does not violate the plaintiffs' civil rights. According to the motion submitted by Jonathan M. Wall of Hyatt & Weber, P.A., an attorney for the defendants, Maryland statutes allow the authority to operate as a private property owner.
As such, it can bar anyone from public housing without "any particular reason."
Ariela Migdal, an attorney for the ACLU Women's Rights Project, which is serving as the plaintiffs' co-counsel, doesn't buy this argument.
"Their argument seems to be - we're not subject to any limits on who we say can or can't come into your homes," said Migdal. "They'd like to argue, that they aren't subject to limits and that they aren't subject to the Constitution."
Migdal said the argument is legally flawed because the housing authority is part of the city government and it is subject both to laws governing landlords and to the Constitution.
"The government can never use a statute to argue that they don't have to follow the Constitution," she said.
The Annapolis housing authority and the defendants' counsel could not be reached for comment. Annapolis Police Department spokesman Ray Weaver said the department had no comment.
"For us, the focus is really these families and how the policy tears them apart, and (the Housing Authority of Annapolis) has yet to address that," said Migdal.
A motions hearing in the case has been set for February.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.