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ACLU files class-action lawsuit over CHA drug-test policy

Adam Schwartz (left) senior attorney for ACLU Illinois with lead plaintiff CHA resident Joseph Peery.  |  Maudlyne Ihejirika~Sun-Times

Adam Schwartz (left), senior attorney for ACLU of Illinois, with the lead plaintiff, CHA resident Joseph Peery. | Maudlyne Ihejirika~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 17, 2013 7:58AM

A class-action lawsuit over the Chicago Housing Authority’s policy requiring drug testing of residents in mixed-income developments was filed Thursday by the ACLU of Illinois.

The federal suit filed in U.S. District Court asserts that the American Civil Liberties Union’s longstanding position that “suspicionless” drug testing is a violation of residents’ constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

The suit, on behalf of lead plaintiff Joseph Peery, seeks a preliminary injunction and asks a judge to permanently bar the policy and force the CHA to pay plaintiffs’ fees.

“Mr. Peery repeatedly has taken and passed a suspicionless drug test,” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Peery is a law-abiding person, and does not use illegal drugs. He strongly objects to the CHA’s suspicionless drug testing. He finds it humiliating and invasive, and it makes him feel stigmatized as a presumptive criminal and drug user.”

The CHA instituted the drug testing as part of its “Plan for Transformation,” which demolished many of its notorious high-rise developments and replaced them with mixed-income developments that offer market-rate and affordable units alongside CHA units.

Displaced residents of torn-down developments such as Cabrini-Green were given the right to return to new developments, but adults over 18 must take initial drug tests and subsequent tests upon lease renewal.

“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 renters is that they follow property rules,” CHA spokeswoman Wendy Parks said in a statement Wednesday. “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.”

The CHA and the ACLU of Illinois have fought over the policy for a decade.

Two years ago, the CHA ignited a storm of controversy when it sought to extend the mixed-income housing drug-testing policy across the board to its 16,000 families in family and senior housing. It wanted to require all adults living in or applying for housing to be tested for drugs — including senior citizens.

CHA had argued it needed more tools to fight the drug scourge in CHA developments.

Residents and housing advocates cried foul. The ACLU accused the CHA of seeking to place a double standard on the poor. Amid a groundswell, the agency quashed the proposal.

Under the policy, a positive drug test subjects leaseholders to eviction proceedings.

Peery, 58, a kitchen worker at a hospital who lives at Parkside of Old Town, 437 W. Division, submits to the test annually in order to hold onto his apartment.

Relocated from the Cabrini Extension homes in 2005, he moved into Parkside in 2010. For four years, he has taken the annual drug test — in the business office of Parkside.

“I’m required to go into the business office, urinate in a jar, then hand it to an office staffer. Anyone working in or visiting the office can watch the process,” Peery said Wednesday. “It’s embarrassing. You can only imagine how the grandmothers in the developments feel. We’re being singled out in public housing. It’s not fair.”

The policy, which affects more than 1,000 mixed-income CHA residents, violates the privacy guarantees of the Fourth Amendment, and Illinois Constitution, the ACLU said.

Adam Schwartz, senior staff counsel at ACLU of Illinois, notes that based on CHA data gathered in September 2011, more than 1,500 CHA residents 18 or older lived in six mixed-income developments with the policy. Yet, only 51 CHA residents at those developments tested positive for drugs over several years the policy was in place.

Twitter: @maudlynei

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