- Associated Press - Thursday, September 10, 2015

DETROIT (AP) - A judge is taking the remarkable step of ordering a high-ranking state official to court to explain why Michigan has been cutting off public aid to some people accused of crimes, despite orders months ago to stop the practice.

Nick Lyon could be at risk of being found in contempt of court. U.S. District Judge Judith Levy wants to see him Friday in Ann Arbor.

“I want him prepared. … He knows we’ve got a lockup,” Levy said at a July hearing. “We’re not going to use it.”

It’s the latest move to get Lyon’s Department of Health and Human Services to comply with Levy’s orders, which affect thousands of people. The judge also plans to hire a “super smart” expert, at public expense, to figure out why the state may be hindered by its computer system.

In January, Levy said Michigan was violating federal law by ending welfare benefits, especially food aid, to people who were wanted for felonies.

Attorneys had argued that the sweeping prohibition was causing severe hardships, especially when law enforcement databases contained wrong or misleading information. The lead plaintiff, for example, is a man in his 40s who has lived with his mother for three decades and has the mental abilities of a child.

Levy said the state can’t cut off benefits unless someone is intentionally fleeing and is being actively pursued by police.

“People cannot survive” without the aid, the judge said.

State lawyers are asking an appeals court to reverse her rulings. The department says it has flexibility in denying benefits until the U.S. Agriculture Department issues final regulations. But in the meantime, the state must follow Levy’s orders.

And that’s been the problem. The state said there’s a “sense of urgency” but that high-tech complexities and employee errors led to more disqualifications.

“This is new territory,” Assistant Attorney General Joshua Smith told the judge. “It seems to make sense that you can go to a computer and hit a button or flip a switch and the criminal justice disqualification is gone. … The technical people that I’ve spoken to have told me that’s not the case.”

The state reports no new errors since late July.

“We believe we are in compliance with the court order, and we continue to work closely with the court and the plaintiffs’ counsel to ensure we are in compliance,” department spokesman Bob Wheaton said Thursday.

The class-action lawsuit so far affects roughly 20,000 people who were denied various welfare benefits from 2012 until Levy’s order earlier this year, according to the state.

Sheryl Wade of Eastpointe said she applied for food assistance in May but was rejected because of a bad check warrant in Detroit that was supposedly issued 21 years ago.

“I believe there is a problem with Detroit’s records,” Wade said. “However, even if there is a warrant for my arrest, I am not fleeing. … Clearly the police are not actively seeking me or I would have been arrested a long time ago.”

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Follow Ed White at https://twitter.com/edwhiteap

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