How an investigation into suspicious evictions got D.C. to address a flawed system
The Washington Post investigative team noticed something amiss about a spate of evictions in D.C. When we looked into it, we realized just how serious the problem was
By Derek Hawkins and Kate McCormick
How does an obscure process that was intended to shut down crack houses, brothels, and havens for gun crimes wind up punishing innocent people and minor offenders?
In our latest investigation, the Washington Post investigative team found dozens of times in the past three years that officials in the District of Columbia have targeted people for eviction over small amounts of marijuana or paraphernalia. Under pressure from the D.C. attorney general’s office, landlords have forced out tenants found with as little as a single joint of weed and charged with no crimes.
Our reporters’ alarm bells first went off with the case of Jasmine White, whose apartment in Fort Totten was raided by police after they caught her roommate with eight ounces of marijuana in his car. Officers found a small amount of marijuana in the man’s bedroom, along with some paraphernalia and spent shotgun shells. He was eventually convicted of a misdemeanor drug charge.
Shortly after the raid, the D.C. attorney general’s office deemed White’s unit a “drug-related nuisance” in a form letter to the landlord. Within weeks of receiving the letter, White’s landlord forced her out.
The whole chain of events left us scratching our heads. White, a neighborhood official with no criminal record, obviously wasn’t a drug dealer. She said that until the letter arrived, the landlord had been willing to let her stay. She also said she worried that the letter was a form of retaliation: police had initially asked to conduct a warrantless search and she turned them away.
We knew White couldn’t have been alone in her situation. If it happened to her, it must happen to others, right? The question took us down a rabbit hole.
The process that allows District officials to sweep up people like White — along with the large-scale drug dealers she was lumped in with — is called “nuisance abatement,” and it’s outlined in a 1999 law known as the Drug-, Firearm-, or Prostitution-Related Nuisance Abatement Act. Passed at the end of the crack-cocaine epidemic, the law was originally designed to shut down drug houses, and was later expanded to include brothels, havens for gun crime, and lesser problems like abandoned, trash-ridden properties.
We started our review of the process by filing FOIA requests for every nuisance letter sent by the attorney general’s office in the past three years. We wound up with about 450. Then we pulled every search warrant and affidavit corresponding to those letters.
After a long, detailed examination, we found that in most cases the attorney general’s office deemed a property a nuisance only after police found large amounts of drugs or illegal guns. Some of the contraband police turned up was alarming — assault rifles, sawed-off shotguns, hundreds of vials of PCP, pounds of crack stashed in ceiling panels. It was clear that District officials had used the law to oust some bad actors.
But another set of cases stood in glaring contrast to the major drug and gun busts we saw. Dozens of searches had turned up only small amounts of marijuana or paraphernalia — barely enough to bring misdemeanor charges — yet those people received drug nuisance letters as well.
We spoke with as many of those people as we could locate. Some were hauled into landlord-tenant court and forced out of their homes. Others fought eviction and got to stay. A few residents had to kick out relatives and roommates. And some tenants left for reasons we never nailed down.
How does this happen and who’s responsible?
It’s hard to say. What we know is that it almost always starts with police. Police supervisors flag properties as nuisances and refer them to the attorney general’s office. We asked police numerous times over the course of several months to explain how they select the properties, but they refused to go into detail.
Here’s the extent of what they said:
Clearly police have a more specific process for selecting which warrants they send, but they weren’t willing to share it with us.
In early summer, we sent a memo to the attorney general’s office detailing our findings and outlining the cases we planned to highlight in our story. All cards were on the table — if we got something wrong, we wanted to know before publication.
When we went in for an interview with officials in June, we were expecting a pushback. Instead, they offered a mea culpa.
Deputy Attorney General for Public Safety Tamar Meekins thanked The Post for bringing the issue to her attention, and said the office never should have targeted tenants such as White. Attorneys didn’t properly review the cases, she said, essentially “rubber stamping” every warrant they received and failing to differentiate between armed drug dealers and innocent people. The office put a moratorium on the letters pending a review, during which time Meekins has vowed to overhaul the process.
It’s unusual for a city agency to admit fault the way the attorney general’s office did. Rarely do public officials vow to reform a flawed system before a story explaining the flaws makes it into print. But the move helped them get ahead of the news and start fixing the problems before they were revealed to the public.
Broadly speaking, the decision could also reflect a shift in strategy as the District — and cities everywhere — slowly scale back the war on drugs. A blanket policy that punishes drug dealers and small-time users with the same brute force is less of a priority, especially since the District decriminalized marijuana. Moreover, the District’s first elected attorney general took office last year, and he may feel a different type of accountability to D.C. residents than his predecessors.
All that aside, if the attorney general’s office is serious about its reforms, people in Jasmine White’s shoes will no longer face the same consequences as bona fide dealers.
Did you enjoy reading about how our investigation came together? Check out this Reporter’s Notebook about investigating an Illinois police department: