New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s civil rights chief has come out against a policy requiring visitors to the county’s Department of Social Services office to show ID and submit to warrant checks by Ulster County sheriff’s deputies. In a December 30, 2014 letter to County Executive Mike Hein and County Attorney Beatrice Havranek, Civil Rights Bureau Chief Kristen Clarke writes that the policy, which was discontinued after an outcry by county lawmakers, would likely deter people from seeking services and may disproportionately impact African-American and Latino residents.
Ulster County sheriff’s staffers have long provided security and weapons-screening services at the DSS office on Ulster Avenue. But, in October, Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum added a new wrinkle — all visitors to the building would have to present identification. Deputies would run the names through a statewide police database; visitors found to have active warrants were detained and, in some cases, turned over for arrest.
During the roughly four weeks that the policy was in effect, the warrant checks netted 32 arrests on outstanding warrants, mostly on misdemeanor charges. VanBlarcum halted the warrant checks in November after civil liberties groups wrote a letter protesting the practice and county lawmakers threatened to turn over security services at the DSS center to a private firm.
But VanBlarcum said this week, he remains convinced the warrant checks were both legal and sound policy.
“I feel like we’re on solid ground,” said VanBlarcum, who said he consulted with legal staff at the New York State Sheriff’s Association on the issue.
But Clarke in her letter pointed to several troubling aspects of the warrant checks. She wrote that the policy appeared to “deter or deny individuals from accessing vital social services that the county is mandated to provide.” Clarke added that her office had reviewed census data and determined that the policy would disproportionately impact African-American and Latino people who are more likely than white county residents to fall below the poverty line.
Clarke’s letter also expressed concern that the policy would deter unaccompanied minors flooding into New York from Central and South America from seeking services.
“This letter memorializes our office’s grave concerns regarding the lawfulness and propriety of a warrant check program in this context,” Clarke wrote.
‘I think we did the right thing’
In a response dated January 6, VanBlarcum wrote that no one had been denied access to DSS services because they did not have ID and that the only people who might be deterred were those with active arrest warrants. VanBlarcum also said the checks serve legitimate law enforcement purposes — for example, he said, ensuring that anybody barred by court order from contacting a particular member of DSS’ largely female workforce wouldn’t have unfettered access to the building. VanBlarcum added that the checks were not discriminatory because they were applied to all visitors to the building regardless of their race or their reason for visiting the building.
“Your economic level does not make you part of a protected class,” said VanBlarcum.
Clarke’s letter was sent just as the annual “memorandum of understanding” between the county and the sheriff’s office for security at DSS was set to expire. The document outlines how much the county will pay for the security operation and how the checkpoint will be staffed. By the time the letter was received, however, county lawmakers had already negotiated the memorandum for 2015, one that makes no mention of the warrant checks. VanBlarcum said the memo also included a standard exit clause allowing either party to terminate the agreement with 30 days notice. He added that he believed county lawmakers would invoke the clause in the event he resumed the warrant checks.
VanBlarcum said that he had agreed to suspend the checks in part because he believed county lawmakers and County Executive Hein would not provide legal resources to defend the policy.
“I think we did the right thing,” said VanBlarcum. “But if this thing ends up in court, who’s going to defend me?”