U.S. v. Safehouse


Safehouse is a public health approach to overdose prevention in Philadelphia. Safehouse’s proposed services include medically supervised consumption.

In February 2019, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania filed a civil lawsuit asking a federal court to declare that supervised consumption sites are illegal under 21 U.S.C. §856(a), a section of the Controlled Substances Act colloquially known as the “Crack House” Statute. The lawsuit does not seek money or to seize property or criminally prosecute any party.

This matter has a been of great interest beyond Philadelphia. Amicus (friends of the court) briefs on behalf of 132 individuals and organizations were filed in the District Court case. The amici included 64 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials, 8 states, and 6 cities in support of Safehouse, 7 amici in opposition, and 4 law professors support of neither party.

On October 2, 2019, a U.S. District Judge ruled that “the ultimate goal of Safehouse’s proposed operation is to reduce drug use, not facilitate it, and accordingly, §856(a) does not prohibit Safehouse’s proposed conduct.”

On February 25, 2020, the court entered a Final Declaratory Judgement for Safehouse. Safehouse could open lawfully, as could any safe consumption site following Safehouse’s model, within the jurisdiction of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. 

Two days later, the government filed a Notice of Appeal and a motion for an emergency stay. This Emergency Motion for Stay asked the court to prevent Safehouse from opening a supervised consumption site until the Third Circuit issues their judgement, further delaying our efforts to bring critical life-saving harm reduction services to Philadelphia. On March 10, 2020, Safehouse submitted a Memorandum in Opposition of the Emergency Motion to Stay to the Eastern District. 

After a year and a half of litigation, on June 24, 2020 the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted the government’s Emergency Motion for Stay. While confirming the efficacy of Safehouse’s proposed activities, Judge McHugh wrote that he was bound to consider the public interest. He based his decision to grant the stay on Philadelphia’s increased instability due to the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest. 

As the case moved to the 3rd Circuit of Appeals, the amici again showed a strong interest in the outcome. Briefs on behalf of 206 individuals and organizations were filed, including 85 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials, 10 states, and 6 cities in support of Safehouse. Forty-five amici, including 15 federal and state GOP legislators, filed in opposition.

Oral arguments were held before the 3rd Circuit of Appeals on November 16, 2020. To hear a recording of the oral arguments, click here.

On January 12, 2021, in a 2-1 split, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Safehouse. The dissenting opinion found that Safehouse cannot violate the statute because it does not have the requisite “purpose” per the language of the statute. 

At this point in the litigation, two federal judges have concluded that Safehouse’s proposed activities are lawful, and two others have found that it’s efforts would violate the law. 

Safehouse respect the court’s decision and will not open until it can do so lawfully. 

The pleadings in the case are below:

Sur Petition on Rehearing (3/24/21)

Amicus Briefs in Support of Rehearing En Banc:

Petition for Rehearing En Banc (2/26/21)

Opinion of the Court (1/12/21)

Transcript of 11/16/20 Oral Arguments

Reply Brief of Appellants (8/3/20)

Amici Filed in U.S. 3rd Circuit in Support and Opposition to Safehouse (5/21/20 – 7/6/20)

Brief of Appellees Safehouse and José Benitez (6/29/20)

Opinion Granting U.S. Emergency Motion for Stay (6/24/20)

U.S. Appeal from Order Granting Final Declaratory Judgment (5/15/20)

U.S. Reply in Support of Motion for Stay (3/27/20)

Safehouse Memorandum of Law Opposing Motion for Stay (3/10/20)

Amici in Support and Opposition to U.S. Emergency Motion for Stay (2/12/20 – 3/22/20)

U.S. Emergency Motion for Stay (2/27/20)

U.S. Notice of Appeal Filed in the 3rd Circuit (2/27/20)

Memorandum and Order for Final Declaratory Judgement (2/25/2020)

Response to US Motion for Summary Judgement (1/31/20)

United States’ Motion and Memorandum of Law In Support of Summary Judgment and Opposition to Safehouse’s Motion for Declaratory Judgment (1/17/20)

Motion for Final Declaratory Judgement (1/6/20)

Order and Memorandum Denying Government’s Motion for Judgement on the Pleadings (10/2/19)

Oral Argument, Audio (9/5/19)

Oral Argument, Transcript (9/5/19)

Evidentiary Hearing, Audio (8/19/19)

Order Scheduling Oral Argument (7/16/19)

Order Scheduling Evidentiary Hearing (7/12/19)

Amicus Briefs in support, in opposition, and in support of neither party (7/10/19)

  • On July 10, 13 amicus (friends of the court) briefs were filed in U.S. v. Safehouse in federal court in Philadelphia. 132 individuals and organizations, composed of 64 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials, 8 states, and 6 cities, filed 11 amicus briefs in support of Safehouse. 7 amici filed a brief in opposition and 4 law professors filed a brief in support of neither party.

Safehouse’s Memorandum of Law in Opposition to the Department of Justice’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (6/28/19)

Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (6/11/19)

Answer and Affirmative Defenses of Plaintiff/Counterclaim (6/10/19)

Stipulated Scheduling Order (5/28/19)

Safehouse’s Answer, Affirmative Defenses, Counterclaims to Plaintiff’s Complaint, and Third-party Complaint (4/3/19)

Complaint for Declaratory Judgment (2/5/19)