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Census worker going to court for trespassing
Effort to give form to policeman backfires
HONOLULU | Census worker Russell Haas has come to expect some resistance when he goes door to door to count the residents of the rugged communities near Hawaii's Kilauea volcano. He didn't expect to get arrested.
An attempt to get one resident, a Hawaii County police officer, to fill out census forms landed Mr. Haas in the back of a patrol car with a trespassing charge.
The case is in federal court, the latest example of disputes this year between census workers and residents who don't want to deal with them. It has created a rare instance in which federal prosecutors have stepped in to serve as criminal defense attorneys.
"I was trained to encourage everybody to be in the census," said Mr. Haas, 57, a former New Jersey police officer.
The case hearkens back to an argument that is as old as the nation itself: the tension between federal powers granted under the Constitution, such as census-taking, and a state's right to govern itself.
Nationwide, census workers have met more hostility than they did in the last count a decade ago. The agency tallied 436 incidents involving assaults or threats against its 635,000 enumerators through June 29, more than double the 181 incidents in 2000.
The Census Bureau intends to finish its count by the end of August, said Celeste Jimenez of the Los Angeles Regional Census Center.
"It is important for residents to participate," she said. "It affects how over $400 billion of federal funding are allocated each year to states for infrastructure and services such as hospitals, job training centers, schools, emergency services."
Hawaii had one of the nation's lowest response rates in the 2000 count, and officials focused on upping the tally in 2010 by encouraging people, especially native Hawaiians, to participate.
In the Big Island's Puna district — a craggy rural area where residents value privacy, independence and the simple life — Mr. Haas said he anticipated some resistance, especially from the area's Vietnam War veterans and marijuana growers.
Instead, most of them took the census forms without a fight, "even the angry ones," he said.
When he went out on March 20, he said, he found trouble when a resident refused to accept census forms and told Mr. Haas to leave his fenced property. Census workers are told in their manuals that they should do their best to gain access to areas surrounded by gates.
"When this guy showed me his badge, I went, 'Dude, you have to be in the census, what are you talking about?'" he said.
The resident continued to refuse to take the census, and Mr. Haas said he waited outside a chain-link fence while the resident called his co-workers at the Hawaii County Police Department.
When police arrived, instead of asking the resident to accept the forms as required by federal law, the officers crumpled the papers into Mr. Haas' chest and handcuffed him, the federal worker said. The department hasn't released the name of the officer who told Mr. Haas to leave his property.
The officers were enforcing state law and had not been trained on the federal census law, Hawaii County Police Maj. Sam Thomas said.
When the case goes to U.S. District Court on July 22, Hawaii County Deputy Prosecutor Roland Talon will argue that Mr. Haas overstepped his authority by opening the resident's fence, entering his property and refusing to leave until he had been asked several times.
"There were other measures that he could have taken which would not have risen to the level of him trespassing onto the property," Mr. Talon said in an interview.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Butrick claims Mr. Haas is protected by the U.S. Constitution for actions taken in his capacity as a federal employee. Mr. Butrick filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss the case.
"Haas was instructed that when dealing with a reluctant respondent he was to strive to gain the respondent's cooperation and try to be persuasive," Mr. Butrick wrote in the motion. "Haas was told to be persistent in his attempt to talk to respondents."
Census officials weren't aware of any other case in which federal lawyers are defending an arrested employee.
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