Ulster County (NY) Sheriff Stops Unlawful Warrant Checks at DSS after NCLEJ and Colleagues Demand the County Rescind the Policy

In October 2014, the Ulster County, NY Sheriff’s Office began running criminal warrant checks on all visitors to the County Department of Social Services (DSS) and Office of the Aging. NCLEJ, along with the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), wrote to county officials demanding that Ulster County DSS rescind its policy permitting the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office to set up a checkpoint at the entrance of the DSS building at which visitors are required to present identification and are subjected to criminal warrant checks. NCLEJ asserted that the policy violates the state constitution and federal and state laws: (1) prohibiting actions that deter and discourage individuals from applying for benefits; (2) requiring that the County encourage timely applications; and (3) prohibiting imposing any additional conditions of eligibility not authorized by federal and state law.

Additionally, the letter notifies the county that its policy potentially violates the Fourth Amendment because the Sheriff’s Office is conducting a suspicionless search and the Equal Protection Clause because the policy singles out visitors to DSS and is not applied to any other county offices. The County’s criminal warrant policy impacts Ulster’s neediest, including those with mental and physical disabilities, the elderly, particularly those that require assistance to visit DSS or the Office of the Aging, and those most likely to forgo needed assistance because of fear of the interaction with law enforcement, such as domestic violence survivors, homeless people, and immigrants, particularly families that contain members with differing immigration status, such as undocumented parents visiting DSS on behalf of their eligible citizen children.

NCLEJ and NYCLU sent the letter on October 30, 2014 to the Ulster County Executive; Ulster County Sheriff’s Office; the Commissioner of the Ulster County DSS, and copied to the Chair of the Ulster County Legislature; the OTDA Commissioner; the Director of Food and Nutrition Policy at OTDA; and the SNAP Director for the Northeast Regional Office at the Food and Nutrition Service at USDA.

The American Association of Retired Persons New York, after NCLEJ’s encouragement, and the Worker Justice Center of New York located in Ulster County wrote to county officials in November 2014 supporting NCLEJ’s position on behalf of their constituencies. On November 6, 2014, the DSS Commissioner asked the Ulster County Sheriff to stop conducting the checks pending a review and discussion by county legislators.

On November 18, 2014, after an emergency meeting of the County Legislature to address the warrant check policy and consider a budget amendment removing funding for Sheriff Department officers at DSS, the Sheriff agreed to suspend the policy. The Ulster County Legislature tasked the Laws and Rules Committee to develop a county-wide policy that addresses NCLEJ and NYCLU’s demands.

NCLEJ has repeatedly successfully challenged efforts by governmental officials and agencies to limit the rights of needy families to apply for assistance. In a series of successes in New York City, NCLEJ put an end to the then mayor’s plans to erect barriers to access for the City’s poorest residents.

Press Coverage

Warrant checks at Ulster County Social Services office called misguided, discriminatory
The Daily Freeman, October 30, 2014

Ulster County Social Services boss says he opposes deputies checking visitors to his department for warrants
The Daily Freeman, November 6, 2014

Ulster sheriff under fire over checks for outstanding warrants
Times Herald-Record, November 6, 2014

Civil Liberties Groups Outraged by DSS Warrant Checks
Saugerties Times, November 7, 2014

“Irrespective of motive, policies and practices that deter people from going to DSS and applying for benefits that they are legally entitled to is something that concerns us,” said NCLEJ Senior Attorney, Laura Redman.

Sheriff Suspends Warrant Checks at Social Services
Woodstock Times, November 20, 2014