ACLU challenges CHA drug testing

November 22, 2011

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(Flickr/Find Your Place in Chicago)
The ACLU of Illinois is challenging the CHA’s drug testing of residents who live in mixed income communities.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois is challenging the Chicago Housing Authority’s drug testing of residents who live in mixed-income developments.

ACLU lawyers want CHA to stop suspicion-less drug testing. In a letter to the housing agency’s CEO, Charles Woodyard, the advocacy groups’ attorneys wrote: “This testing comprises government actions, and it violates federal and state constitutional guarantees of freedom of unreasonable searches and seizures.”

“The government doesn’t have the right to test you absent suspicion,” said ACLU staff attorney Karen Sheley.

The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act to find out the number of CHA residents who have tested positive for drugs. There are approximately 1,600 public housing residents 18 years and older who live in mixed-income public housing; 51 tested positive over a period of several years.

“There’s not a need to conduct this testing. It’s very consistent with social science research that shows that low-income persons don’t use or abuse drugs at rates that are higher than persons in other income groups. And we believe the drug testing without the individualized suspicions stigmatizes CHA residents as presumptive drug users,” Sheley said.

CHA officials didn’t address ACLU concerns but gave a statement: “Through the CHA's mixed-income program, public housing families reside in housing that is new, privately-owned and privately operated, alongside market-rate and affordable renters. One of the requirements of all the 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.”

All renters are drug tested at sites where a drug-testing requirement is established.

Earlier this year, a proposal for drug testing all CHA tenants sparked controversy. Many residents and civil liberties advocates balked at the idea.

In June, CHA board chairman James Reynolds nixed the idea. At the public board meeting, he said drug testing “was kind of close to violating civil rights,” and that it was possible that the mixed-income drug policy may be revisited.

The ACLU said it hasn’t heard back from CHA but plans to continue advocating for an end to the mixed-income drug testing.