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Saturday, May 18, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge Throws Hail Mary to Nearly Homeless Mom

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (CN) - A federal judge on Tuesday extended the order that will keep a roof over the head of an impoverished mother of three who was convicted of felony assault after allegedly fending off the attacks of two drunken women.

Maritza Rios had been living in federally subsidized housing in Huntington, N.Y., for nearly four years, until she got caught up in a brawl on Aug. 20, 2011. Rios, then 24 years old, said she learned that she was wanted for assault about a week later and she turned herself in.

Although she originally intended to claim self-defense, claiming that two drunken women had attacked her, Rios said she opted for a plea bargain because she could not afford to post bail and had to be home for her three children.

After one year of probation, the plea deal would reduce the charge to a misdemeanor. But the public housing authority sent Rios a notice during her brief jail stint terminating her from Section 8 housing because of her arrest. The notice included Suffolk County Court records with her criminal charges, and newspaper coverage of the incident.

That December, Rios attended a hearing before the Huntington Housing Authority and handed informal hearing officer Adam Morelli six letters from school authorities and community agency workers attesting to her character.

Just after the new year, Morelli recommended that Rios should continue to receive Section 8 benefits.

"As determined by a review of documents and testimony given during the hearing, the altercation which led to your arrest was not initiated by you," Morelli wrote. "In fact, you were attacked by two intoxicated women and reacted in self-defense. This was your first legal infraction, and under the circumstances, I believe that you should not be punished further for this incident. Additionally, it is clear that you are in high esteem within you community, as exemplified by the numerous letters written on your behalf by principals, coaches and teachers."

Yet Morelli cited the wrong regulation in defending Rios, choosing a provision governing the admission, rather than termination, of Section 8 benefits.

The housing authority seized upon the error in reversing Morelli's decision.

Rios filed a federal lawsuit on March 30, seeking an injunction to stop the termination of her benefits.

Though U.S. District Judge Arthur Spatt immediately granted Rios a temporary restraining order, he decided Tuesday that she does not have a federal case and rejected the motion for an injunction.

"However, because of the drastic nature of the relief sought by the defendants, coupled with the fact that the plaintiff is a mother of three small children and, apparently, has no funds, the court will extend the TRO for the stipulated period, until April 17, 2012, to enable the plaintiff's counsel to seek comparable relief in the state court," Spatt wrote.

The 25-page decision emphasizes that the court has not expressed "any opinion regarding the soundness of the PHA's decision.

"In fact, the court remains somewhat skeptical about the reasons stated by the PHA in their determination reversing their HO's decision," Spatt wrote, abbreviating hearing officer. "The HO, after considering all of the evidence, utilized his authorized discretion in finding that the plaintiff had been punished enough and that she and her three small children should not be rendered homeless because of her first criminal infraction, especially one that was explained to be the result of self-defense."

"Despite these concerns, it is not the court's role in the present context to assess the validity of the PHA's reasoning and ruling," he added. "That is a determination that is initially more properly left to the New York State court in an Article 78 proceeding."

Rios' public advocate, Victor Ambrose, was not immediately available to comment on the ruling.

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