Possession of Drug Paraphernalia Not Equivalent to Actual Drug Possession
Facts: A police officer searched a Section 8 resident’s unit pursuant to a search warrant and found six empty heroin bags, two crack pipes, and used hypodermic needles. A month later, the local PHA sent a notice to the resident terminating her benefits because she had engaged in drug-related criminal activity.
The resident requested an informal hearing, and at the hearing the officer testified about the extent of drug paraphernalia found. He stated that the property was “probably the worst place I have ever seen, including abandoned houses, since I’ve been on the job” and that “there were about 2,000 needles just everywhere.”
The resident testified that she left the unit to go to work at 4:15 p.m. and returned home at 8:40 p.m. She denied having drug paraphernalia, and she suspected that intruders had entered the unit because she was missing some personal belongings and had reported to the owner that the lock on her back door was broken. The site’s maintenance man testified that he came in the early afternoon to fix the back door and stated that he may have heard voices inside. He recalled that the back door was broken and noted that the resident previously reported break-ins. He believed that the resident didn’t use drugs and contradicted the officer’s testimony about there being 2,000 needles around. He stated that he goes into her unit at least once a week, that she keeps a clean unit, and that he had never seen needles.
The hearing officer denied the resident’s grievance. The resident appealed to a trial court, which concluded that the evidence supported the hearing officer’s decision that the resident had engaged in drug-related criminal activity. The resident appealed again, and the court sent the case back for further findings of fact.
The hearing officer held further hearings and again issued a decision denying the resident’s grievance. The trial court reversed the decision, finding that the hearing officer had disregarded substantial evidence. The PHA then appealed.
Ruling: A Pennsylvania Commonwealth court upheld the trial court’s decision but on different grounds.
Reasoning: Here, a dispute exists about the extent of drug paraphernalia found at the unit and whether the drug paraphernalia belonged to the resident or was left behind by intruders. However, the court pointed out that under the applicable federal regulations, a “drug-related criminal activity” requires the actual use or possession of a drug, not drug paraphernalia. Thus, a court found that a disorderly conduct conviction related to drug paraphernalia being found at the site provides insufficient cause to terminate the resident’s housing assistance benefits.
- Degelman v. Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, June 2013