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Hard-Line Drug Law Threatens a Pillar of the Community

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

When D.C. police allegedly found a small amount of marijuana in her grandson's bedroom last year, Frances Johnson had to take the rap with him. As a tenant in a federally subsidized apartment, she is subject to eviction for any criminal act that occurs under her roof -- whether she knows about it or not.

Within weeks of the grandson's arrest, her landlord and the D.C. Housing Authority began legal proceedings under the federal government's "one strike and you're out" policy.

That might have been the end of the story. But Johnson, 68, has taken a stand, fighting back even as she battles cancer and diabetes, her stellar reputation for community service acting as a bulwark against a law that can easily steamroll vulnerable, innocent, low-income tenants.

Several D.C. Council members, noting her volunteer work on behalf of at-risk children, wrote letters of support to the D.C. Housing Authority. The agency eventually reversed itself and yesterday recertified Johnson's eligibility for the Housing Choice Voucher Program.

But the landlord, NDC Realty, still has two eviction lawsuits pending against her under the "one strike" law. She's far from being home safe.

"I feel the pressure, but I'm staying prayerful," Johnson told me recently. "It does make it hard to sleep sometimes, not knowing if I'm staying or going and if I have to go, will I have a place to go to."

I first met Johnson in 1993, when we both lived in the 1400 block of R Street NW. After neighborhood kids witnessed a drug raid on her building, Johnson responded by turning her walk-in closet into a dollhouse and classroom for them. I wrote a column about the scene: children reading stories, drawing and making believe they were doctors, lawyers and teachers, among them her 9-year-old grandson, Ernest Johnson, who pretended to be president of the United States.

"I'll give grandma a $1,000 reward," the boy told me back then. "I think this place is pretty good."

Ernest, now 24, is a highly regarded employee at a supermarket in his neighborhood, still living with Johnson and serving as her primary caretaker. In September, he was arrested on the streets while gambling, pleaded guilty to marijuana possession and was sentenced to four months in jail. The store is holding his job until his release next month.

A raid on the Johnson apartment two weeks later allegedly netted a cuff link box with marijuana in it, but the charges were dropped.

Nevertheless, the episode was enough to trigger the "one-strike" a provision of the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act, passed by Congress in 1988 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002.

"This is a law that has no defense, except for the raw fact that it is unconstitutional," said Pat O'Donnell, a lawyer with the firm Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis, who is representing Johnson pro bono. "There is no due process under the law when the law treats people who have done nothing wrong like criminals."

Under an agreement between Frances Johnson and D.C. housing authorities, Ernest will no longer be allowed to live with her, which will be a hardship for her.

Julie Becker, a lawyer with the D.C. Legal Aid Society, said the federal law permits but does not require eviction for all criminal activity. In testimony before the D.C. Council last year, she accused the D.C. Housing Authority of taking "an extremely zealous approach" to the law, citing attempts to evict an 82-year-old man based on the activity of his son and grandson as well as a woman based on a fight between her teenage granddaughter and a neighbor.

O'Donnell said he hopes a settlement can be reached with Johnson's landlord. Kevin Kane, a lawyer handling the case for NDC Realty, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

"However this ends for Ms. Johnson, though," O'Donnell said, "the sins of the grandson will continue to be visited upon grandmothers like her under the one-strike law."

Through the years, Johnson has continued her good works. Most recently, as a custodian for Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, she has been coaxing neighborhood kids to attend Sunday school by cooking breakfast for them in the church kitchen.

"I try to help others as much as I can," she said. "No better way to keep from worrying so much about your own woes."

E-mail:milloyc@washpost.com

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