No public housing eviction for petty crime

Law of the Land

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 8, 2010

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Law of the Land

Tara-Nicholle Nelson
Inman News™

Richard K. Edwards leased an apartment from the Public Housing Agency of St. Paul, Minn., in 2008; in 2009, he was arrested for possessing two bags of marijuana while he was visiting a friend in her apartment, at another PHA-owned complex. Though the criminal charges against Edwards were dismissed, the PHA sued to evict him, alleging that his arrest violated and materially breached his lease.

In particular, the PHA complained that Edwards' arrest violated terms of his lease, which stated that tenants shall not engage in "drug-related criminal activity," and prohibited any "activity, not just criminal activity, that threatens the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other tenants and public housing employees, or drug-related and/or criminal activity on or off the premises, not just on or near the premises."

The trial court agreed with Edwards' argument that the police search of him was unconstitutional and that the marijuana evidence would not have been admissible in criminal court, but found that the admissibility prohibition was inapplicable to the civil eviction case.

Nonetheless, after trial, the trial court still ruled in Edwards' favor, dismissing the PHA's eviction complaint after finding that the PHA had not proved that Edwards had breached his lease; nor that he had ever seen, been given a copy of, or had any reason to know about the admissions and occupancy policies the PHA claimed he had breached.

The PHA appealed. The appellate court deferred to the trial court's extensive findings of fact, including findings that Edwards had in fact possessed very small amounts of marijuana for his own personal use, but that he had not possessed it in his own apartment or complex.

The trial court had also found that Edwards' marijuana possession did violate Minn. Stat. Statute 152.027, subd. 4(a) (prohibiting possession of less than 42.5 grams of marijuana), and that his behavior was not criminal, but rather was a petty misdemeanor offense, which Minnesota law expressly defines as noncriminal.

The PHA argued that the trial court's findings ignored the definitions of criminal activity and drug use contained in the lease.

On appeal, the PHA's arguments were rejected. The appellate court pointed out that the lease itself does not even contain the terms the PHA accused Edwards of violating. The lease simply incorporates "Admission and Occupancy Policies" and tells tenants that these policies can be viewed at the management office.

The appeals court also pointed out that, at trial, the PHA never did actually provide a copy of the "Admission and Occupancy Policies," but only introduced another eviction document that had been served to Edwards, which defines criminal and drug-related criminal activity only by referencing "Minnesota law."

Because the complete, precise definitions of criminal activity and drug-related criminal activity as contained in the admission and occupancy policies that were incorporated in Edwards' lease were never proven to the trial court, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's ruling that the PHA had not proven that Edwards breached these terms of his lease.

As a result, the trial court's ruling was affirmed.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman's Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Tara is also the Consumer Ambassador and Educator for real estate listings search site Trulia.com. Ask her a real estate question online or visit her website, www.rethinkrealestate.com.

                                                   
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