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A panel of appellate judges in Queens delved into a n almost Clintonian moral puzzle last week: What the definition of “to know” is.

By a vote of 2 to 1, the court ordered the eviction of a resident of a privately owned apartment building in Jamaica, stating that the woman should have known that her son was dealing drugs out of her apartment. The tenant, Patricia Hill, said she had no idea until the police arrested him.

The decision puts in question the longstanding precedent that if a tenant is unaware of illegal activity taking place in her apartment, then she cannot be evicted.

Hill’s landlord sought eviction after police arrested her son in 1999 for possession of marijuana, cocaine and drug paraphernalia found in her apartment. During her housing court trial last year, Hill successfully argued that since her son was in the apartment without her permission while she was at work–she actually had an order of protection against him–she could not be evicted.

However, last week’s ruling in 88-09 Realty v. James Hill overturned that decision, and Hill could be evicted within the month.

How last week’s decision will affect future cases remains to be seen. Since the judges argued that Hill did know about her son’s crime, the case did not actually set a new precedent. But two of the judges argued that if a tenant should know, that is the same as actually knowing; accordingly, the panel called for a re-examination of what it means “to know” about something.

That has tenant lawyers concerned. “It’s very troubling that a long-term tenant, who could be elderly or disabled, has to suffer because someone else uses their apartment without their knowledge,” said April Newbauer, director of the Queens civil division of the Legal Aid Society.

Other observers aren’t worried yet. “You still have to show that the tenant had specific knowledge of the wrongful activity,” said Legal Aid litigation director Scott Rosenberg. “That didn’t change.”

Hill, who could not be located for comment and represented herself in the case, can appeal the decision to the state Court of Appeals. The Legal Aid Society is “trying to reach out to her” to offer representation, Newbauer said.

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