Legal Aid Justice Center and Virginia ACLU threatened suit if court petition not withdrawnRichmond , VA -- Under threat of a lawsuit, attorneys for the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority have agreed not to pursue the juvenile records of public housing tenants. Juvenile offender records, unlike adult criminal records, are kept under seal, but several weeks ago RRHA lawyers filed a petition with the Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court seeking unrestricted access to all juvenile offender records in the City of Richmond .
RRHA's petition appears to have been filed shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal law in March giving housing authorities the right to evict entire families whenever there is evidence that any member or guest of the family has engaged in "drug-related criminal activity" on or off the premises. Whether or not other family members are aware of the drug-related activity is considered irrelevant. Experts predicted that the case could cause unprecedented investigations into tenants' backgrounds and result in mass evictions of low-income families from public housing.
"Juvenile records are kept under seal in order to give children who have made a mistake a chance to put their pasts behind them," said Legal Aid Justice Center litigation director Mary Bauer. "Obtaining and using these records to evict entire families not only undermines the juvenile justice system, but it also defeats the purpose of government assisted housing for low income families."
Upon learning of the RRHA petition, the Legal Aid Justice Center and the ACLU of Virginia decided to seek an injunction in federal court to block a hearing scheduled for May 29 in Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. The main legal argument, to be made on behalf of the Richmond Tenants Organization, would have been that the tenants where not given proper legal notice of the proceedings. After receiving a letter from Bauer last week warning that the lawsuit would be filed on May 13, RRHA representative Godfrey T. Pinn, Jr., an attorney with the McGuire Woods law firm in Richmond , indicated that he would withdraw the petition.
"The unsealing of juvenile records is rare and should be," added ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. "The judge must be convinced that having the record of a particular juvenile will help solve a specific crime. The Housing Authority's attempt to obtain wholesale access to all juvenile records is nothing more than a witch-hunt. If RRHA tries this again, whether or not proper notice is given to tenants, they will have another fight on their hands."
Contacts: Alex Gulotta, Executive Director, Legal Aid Justice Center, 434-977-0553 Mary Bauer, Litigation Director, Legal Aid Justice Center, 434-977-0553 Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022