The New York Civil Liberties Union has confirmed that the Ulster County Department of Social Services (DSS) and sheriff entered into an agreement to stop running warrant checks on every person who enters the DSS building to apply for help, ask a question, report a problem or accompany someone else seeking help. The NYCLU was one of the organizations advocating against the policy.

“People who need help like child care, food stamps and emergency assistance should be encouraged to seek help instead of being afraid of being criminalized,” said Daniel Berger, director of the NYCLU’s Lower Hudson Valley Chapter. “We are relieved that the county has acknowledged the danger of this misguided policy, which deterred Ulster’s neediest – including homeless people, domestic violence victims, and those with mental and physical disabilities -- from seeking help that the county is required to provide.”

In October, the Ulster County sheriff began requiring that every person who entered the DSS building, which also houses the county’s Office for the Aging and the U.S. Social Security Administration satellite office, to produce identification and be subject to a check for outstanding warrants.

The NYCLU, in response to complaints from people who routinely relied on access to DSS, objections from community civil rights activists and media reports, sent a letter jointly with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice asking that the county rescind this policy. The NYCLU later filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request asking for policy documents related to the warrant checkpoint.

In December, the State Attorney General’s Office issued a letter expressing “grave concerns” about the warrant checkpoint and further noting that the checks seemed to focus “disproportionately” on blacks and Latinos and could deter or deny people from gaining access to services the county is required to provide.

The agreement between the sheriff and the county commissioner of DSS to stop running the warrant checks was signed by the parties between January 6 and 12.

“A warrant checkpoint runs directly contrary to the goal of the Department of Social Services – which is to provide vulnerable people with help, not stigmatize them as criminals,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose. “Warrant checks turn every visit to the DSS into a police encounter and every visitor into a potential criminal. Policies that prevent people from seeking help from the DSS without any suspicion of wrongdoing are inconsistent with state laws, federal laws and the U.S. Constitution.”

Download the agreement here:

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