Judge Halts Warrantless Searches In East Chicago Public Housing

Oct 7, 2016

A federal judge has stepped in to halt the East Chicago Housing Authority's policy of searching tenants' apartments without a warrant or prior notice.

Wednesday's injunction stems from an Indiana ACLU lawsuit in February, months before revelations about high levels of lead in a city housing complex.

ACLU attorney Jan Mensz says the Housing Authority put in its leases it could enter people's apartments without notice for routine inspections -- in theory, things like maintenance.

But he says the searches often turned into drug raids, or other actions that needed a warrant or prior consent.

"And it seemed to blur the line between what was administrative or criminal," he says. "And that's really where a warrant becomes important, is that it makes explicit what the purpose of the entry is for."

Because the Housing Authority is a government entity, federal law states it has to get permission before it comes into a house.

The Housing Authority also allegedly swept buildings with drug-sniffing dogs at least once a year without residents' consent -- a violation of Fourth Amendment privacy rights, Mensz says.

A district court judge in Hammond agreed with those arguments, issuing an injunction Wednesday to stop the search policy for current and future public housing residents in East Chicago.

That includes tenants who are currently being forced to move out of West Calumet Housing Complex, which residents learned this summer has high levels of lead in its soil.

Mensz says the timing of the search policy case and injunction was "coincidental."

"But yes, we have serious concerns about the housing authority's ability in this circumstance, or willingness to respect tenants' rights," he says. "So this is the main case we're looking at, but I understand there are others as well."

Those include an administrative complaint between with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and a class action lawsuit against the city. Both focus mainly on the relocation process at West Calumet.

Attorney Jewell Harris represents the Housing Authority in those cases as well as the ACLU case. He says the authority will work with the ACLU on revising lease policies to protect tenants' safety as well as their privacy.

Harris says that will mean clarifying the specific "exigent" or "emergency" situations where the housing authority would not need permission to enter a unit.