We're used to legal aid and pro bono lawyers siding against community efforts to restore civility, as when Sullivan & Cromwell attorneys teamed with the Legal Aid Society to challenge New York's ban on subway panhandling.
But in Charlotte, North Carolina, pro bono and legal aid lawyers really do advance the public interest. There they are working with police and city officials, using state public nuisance laws to combat drug activity. Ted Fillette, deputy director of Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, developed the program in response to pleas from residents of several low-income neighborhoods that his office serves, in concert with volunteer lawyers from the Mecklenberg County Bar Association.
"There were a lot of Habitat for Humanity homes in these communities, and right around the corner there would be a leased premises with a drug dealer working out of it," says William L. Brown, chairman of the bar association's volunteer lawyers committee. (See "It's Time to Take Habitat for Humanity Seriously") The program brings legal action against landlords who allow such activity to continue on their property. Attorneys are usually able to reach a settlement with landlords to halt the illegal activity. In one case a judge effectively shut down a house where 22 people were arrested in 18 months for such crimes as drug trafficking, cocaine possession, possession of a stolen vehicle, and assault with a firearm.
Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot has won a commitment from 22 Charlotte law firms, including the one he still works for, to help the program by taking on one drug nuisance case a year. Other cities would benefit if lawyers recognized, as they have in Charlotte, that the public good lies in protecting fragile inner-city communities, not in supporting their most antisocial elements.