Chicagoan Challenges City’s Drug Test Requirement For Public Housing

Joseph Peery has teamed up with the ACLU to file a class action lawsuit against mandatory drug testing in public housing,
By @katierucke |
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    Chicago resident Joseph Peery is filing a lawsuit with the ACLU against the Chicago Housing Authority, claiming that annual drug tests for public housing are a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Photo/Micah Baldwin via Flickr

    Chicago resident Joseph Peery is filing a lawsuit with the ACLU against the Chicago Housing Authority, claiming that annual drug tests for public housing are a violation of the Fourth Amendment. (Photo/Micah Baldwin via Flickr)

    Joseph Peery doesn’t do drugs, has never failed a drug test and has spent the last 10 years working on drug-use prevention programs in Chicago. Now the 58-year-old says he has had enough of the yearly urinalysis that is required in order for him to live in his apartment, and has filed a class action lawsuit against the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois, alleging the drug tests violate not only his civil liberties, but those of his fellow public housing residents as well.

    In his lawsuit, Peery alleges that the drug testing is, specifically, a violation of CHA tenants’ Fourth Amendment rights, because the required drug tests don’t protect them from unreasonable searches and seizures.

    Peery, who has lived in a mixed-income housing development since 2010, said the drug tests — which are required of all renters in the complex before they move in and every year if they want to renew their rental agreement — are “humiliating, embarrassing, stigmatizing,” and said they are unfair and need to end.

    “It’s like CSI, it’s like a crime scene or something. Makes you feel like a criminal and you haven’t done anything,” Peery said.

    According to Brian Gilmore, a clinical associate professor and director of the housing clinic at Michigan State University College of Law who has researched drug testing policies throughout the U.S., the CHA is the only housing authority in the U.S. that allows a mandatory drug test.

    For Peery, his annual urine test takes place at the office of the management company that oversees his apartment building. He said, “There’s secretaries there and people walking in and paying rent, and I’m handed a cup.”

    After producing the urine sample, “you’re literally sitting there with this cup on your lap with people walking in like why is this guy sitting there with a cup of urine on his lap? I haven’t done a crime. Why am I made to feel like this?”

    ACLU attorney Karen Sheeley recently spoke on why the testing policy violates the Fourth Amendment. She said, “There’s no question that being forced to urinate into a cup, hand over the urine and have it tested by the government is a search that can violate the Fourth Amendment. In this instance, the government would have to come up with a really good reason for why Mr. Peery’s privacy and all the other CHA tenants’ privacy would be violated. We just don’t think they have a reason that justifies it.”

    She added that “It’s clear that this is something that’s being targeted to CHA tenants,” and the drug testing policy “makes assumptions that just aren’t true about who uses drugs, and we think it should end.”

    ACLU lawyer Adam Schwartz, who is representing Peery, agreed with Sheeley and said, “The reason they’re doing this is because of the stigma of the CHA renters. If they weren’t trying to get the CHA renters, they wouldn’t be doing it to any renters.”

    In response to the lawsuit, CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar released a statement rehashing the group’s stance on drug testing, by reiterating that “rules for CHA residents are the same as those for market rate renters,” when it comes to complexes and developments in which public housing tenants live alongside those who pay affordable rates and those who pay market rates.

    “One of the requirements of renters is that they follow property rules. And if those rules happen to include drug testing, then public housing families — like their market-rate and affordable renter neighbors — must adhere to those rules,” Aguilar said.

    While Aguilar continues to argue that all tenants at a housing complex must take a drug test if the management requires it, Peery says many apartments are singling out CHA residents and only testing them — not those who pay market-rate or affordable rates.

    Peery says the testing is wrong and says that “You’re not going to have a drug-free environment by testing people who don’t use drugs.

    “I don’t use drugs. There’s a history in Cabrini of people who are church-goers, family people, people raising kids who go on and become very successful in life that don’t use drugs. Why are we being targeted and singled out? That’s wrong. It’s stigmatizing. It’s embarrassing and just plain unfair,” Peery said.

    According to the ACLU, though the CHA has drug tested about 1,600 public housing residents over the age of 18 for years, only about 51 people living in CHA have tested positive for drugs.

    Talking to the Chicago Tribune, Peery said a year after he moved into his current apartment, he was informed that the CHA was considering making the drug test policy mandatory for all CHA tenants. Peery said he went to a town hall meeting on the issue and said there were hundreds of people there who were opposed to the idea.

    “What really touched me was to watch a little old lady get up out of a wheelchair, right, to come to the mic to be able to speak, right, and shaking with — I mean, very vehement — ‘Why am I being forced to drug test and urinate into a cup?’” Peery said. “Why would you do that to a grandma?”

    The CHA’s board of directors ended up killing the proposal themselves, and then-board chairman James Reynolds said the board decided to not require all CHA tenants to take an annual drug test because it was “kind of close to violating on civil rights.”

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