OVER THE past three years, the D.C. attorney general’s office has sent out about 450 form letters to landlords advising them of tenants who had been accused of unlawful activities and the need to take corrective action. Landlords were fearful of being sued by the city and therefore, in many cases, evicted their tenants. Some people deserved to lose their homes because their activities clearly were a neighborhood nuisance. But others were blameless or represented no threat to the community. That lawyers for the city didn’t take the time to differentiate between the two is concerning and must be addressed by city officials.
Problems with how the attorney general’s office enforced the Drug-, Firearm-, or Prostitution-Related Nuisance Abatement Act were detailed in a recent Post investigation. Under the law, passed in the late 1990s to give the city legal muscle against properties that had become havens for drugs, prostitution or other illegalities, properties raided by police are referred to the attorney general’s office. It is supposed to examine each case to determine whether there is a real nuisance, but it acted more as a rubber stamp. If police referred a case, a letter was sent, no questions asked.
Among those caught up in what Post reporters called “an assembly line of government agencies that merely processed paperwork”: a grandmother forced from her Southwest home over one gram of marijuana, and an advisory neighborhood commissioner who had to move after a small amount of marijuana, drug paraphernalia and shotgun shells were found in the room of her apartment-mate. “A lot of tenants,” Beth Harrison of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia told The Post, “are dragged into court who shouldn’t be, and a lot of landlords are being forced to bring these [eviction] cases even when they don’t have enough evidence.”
To their credit, officials in the attorney general’s office owned up to the problem. After being shown The Post’s review of nuisance-abatement letters, officials imposed a moratorium, pending a review. Attorney General Karl A. Racine told us that while the District’s legalization of marijuana likely has made many of these cases moot, he wants to be sure the proper checks and balances are in place. The Legal Aid Society has some ideas — including establishment of clear, written guidelines — on how to improve the process, and we are glad officials are taking up the group on its offer to meet. It is important that the District have the ability to move against properties that are a community threat, but it should be able to do so without ensnaring — and hurting — innocent people.