A law enforcement measure that has had mixed results in hunting down fugitives among the nation's sick and disabled is expanding this year to target the much larger ranks of retired Americans.
Thousands of unsuspecting retirees could lose their Social Security checks in the months ahead, some over false or unproven allegations, minor infractions or long-dormant arrest warrants.
The risk is a consequence of the Fugitive Felon Project, a little-known law-and-order measure created by Congress in 1996 to help apprehend suspects and to prevent fleeing criminals from using government benefits to elude arrest.
Project computers already match names on various welfare lists with names on felony warrants issued around the country. That screening process has led to thousands of arrests among recipients of disability checks alone, including 88 wanted on homicide charges.
But records and interviews also show that the computer dragnet frequently cut off federal benefits to the sick, poor and disabled who were neither fugitives nor felons. Many lacked financial and legal resources to get their benefits restored.
In one case, an Oregon man with a mental disorder was named on an arrest warrant for entering a rental car without permission at an airport parking lot in 1999. Four years later, computers found the record, and the man's federal disability payments stopped. The man committed suicide last year, before his benefits could be reinstated.
An Oregon woman with lung disease lost her monthly disability check and faced the loss of her government-subsidized oxygen supplies over a Nevada arrest warrant she didn't know existed.
And a Minnesota man lost his disability support because he once disrupted Conrail train service in Ohio. He had threatened to kill himself by jumping from a trestle in Toledo. He left the state unaware that he was named on a criminal warrant.
Others regarded as fugitives and denied benefits turned out to have been in nursing homes or wheelchairs and were physically unable to flee.
"They're not fleeing suspects; they're sitting ducks," said Bruce Schweiger, deputy public defender for Los Angeles County and a critic of the project.
In one case reviewed by The Times, a Georgia man had his disability checks cut off for four months over an unpaid 1978 motel bill in Seattle.
"I was guilty before proven," said James Brassell, a stroke victim now living in a Macon nursing home.
Police in the state of Washington were unwilling to extradite Brassell, records show. The old charges eventually were dropped after Georgia Legal Services workers petitioned West Coast prosecutors on behalf of the invalid.
Such examples were discounted as "the exception, not the rule," by Daniel MacLean, press secretary to U.S. Rep. Wally Herger (R-Chico), a champion of the Fugitive Felon Project.
Herger declined requests for an interview but defended the program in a statement, saying more should be done "to ensure taxpayer resources support those who obey the law, not flout it."
However, the government's statistics show a large share of the warrants involved allegations or infractions of such limited interest to law enforcement that police often were unwilling to arrest or extradite.
The computer does not distinguish between serious felony charges and allegations that may be dropped or routinely reduced to misdemeanors, for example.
During a four-year period ending in September, police reports showed that authorities declined to make arrests or to extradite almost as often as they took fugitives into custody — in about 48% of the cases with solid investigative leads.
Nonetheless, benefit payments routinely are suspended in all cases where warrants are found — about 78,000 since 1996 — even if police decline to make arrests. The actions commonly launch a cycle of inquiries and appeals.
An audit by the Social Security Administration's inspector general found that about one-third of those cut off from Supplemental Security Income payments for the blind, aged and disabled ended up getting their warrants resolved and benefits restored.
Citing that pattern, retired Social Security Inspector General James Huse questioned the program's inefficiencies even as he endorsed its goals.
"If all we do is identify people, suspend benefits — not arrest and then restore benefits — it doesn't make a whole lot of sense," he said in an interview.
The problem goes beyond inefficiency, critics argue.
"It ends up penalizing some of the most vulnerable people in our society under the guise of law enforcement," said Gerald McIntyre, a Los Angeles-based attorney for the National Senior Citizens Law Center.
Despite such doubts, this month the Fugitive Felon Project began scanning the 48 million names in the nation's Social Security register — a pool nearly seven times larger than the 6.8 million disability recipients screened in past years.
"I think it's going to be a bit of a shock when it hits a much wider, deeper population — all the retirees," said Marty Ford, co-chair of the Social Security task force at the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, in an interview.
Advocates for people with disabilities, while generally supporting efforts to locate fugitives, are critical that the project cuts off benefits so broadly.
"Why don't they just use the Social Security database to go out and pick up the people they want [to arrest], and leave the other people alone?" said Bill Lienhard, director of the mental health project for the Urban Justice Center, a legal advocacy organization based in New York.
Peter Blute, a father of the Fugitive Felon Project, is unmoved by examples of hardships caused by the legislation. The onetime Republican congressman from Massachusetts, who sponsored the original bill, insisted that benefits be stopped to everyone wanted on a felony warrant, even those whom police refused to arrest.
Blute, now a radio talk show host in Boston, said in an interview that lost benefits could be considered a penalty and a fitting substitute for arrest.
Such action "puts pressure on that person" to go back into court and resolve any warrants, Blute said.
"I'm fine with that," he said.
Among those penalized by loss of disability benefits was Edith Hull, 56, who lives in Oregon. When her $358 monthly SSI disability check stopped, she was surprised to learn that she was considered a fugitive from justice.
The woman, who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung disorder, also was threatened with loss of Medicaid benefits essential to pay for oxygen equipment.
The problem was a 7-year-old arrest warrant from Nevada that Hull said she knew nothing about.
"I obviously wasn't fleeing. I had a driver's license for all these years. It's not like I was hiding," Hull said.
With help from Legal Aid, she found that in 1995, three months after she and her husband had moved to Oregon, a warrant had been issued. Her former Nevada employer alleged that she improperly cashed a $962 check. She said she was owed the money.
Hull and her husband, a cancer patient, borrowed heavily from relatives to pay for housing and other bills while trying to resolve the legal tangle. Without her mother-in-law, Hull said, "we wouldn't even have a car to live in."
Meanwhile, authorities in Sparks, Nev., declined to spend the $3,800 they said it would cost to extradite her.
"Considering the age of the case and the relatively small amount of money" allegedly stolen, a case like Hull's isn't worth the expense, said Washoe County deputy district attorney Mike Mahaffey.
Hull couldn't afford a trip back to Nevada to clear the warrant, according to Legal Aid attorney James Kocher.
"One of the things about these cases is that once you're cut off, your ability to do anything about the warrant is compromised," Kocher said.
Last June, a federal judge ruled that Hull was not a fugitive and ordered her disability payments resumed.
Still, Hull complained, for 2 1/2 years while her benefits were suspended she was treated as "guilty until proven innocent."
The Fugitive Felon Project grew out of congressional concern that federal funds might be helping criminals hide and avoid capture. The computer screening project was incorporated into the landmark welfare reform bill of 1996.
Four years later, Inspector General Huse estimated that $39 million in Social Security checks each year was going to people named on arrest warrants, and he recommended amending the law to permit screening lists of retirees as well.
He said in a report that benefits checks otherwise "may finance a potentially dangerous fugitive's flight from justice."
Rep. Herger helped lead the project's expansion.
"Our laws should help bring fugitives to justice, not subsidize their flights from justice," Herger said on the House floor before the expansion was approved.
Herger resisted pressure from Senate negotiators to ease the rules by limiting benefit cutoffs to people targeted for arrest.
He and other backers on the House side felt the tougher rules provided appropriate "pressure to come clean" on people with lingering legal problems, according to a House Ways and Means Committee aide.
But critics of the project won a partial victory.
A compromise now in effect allows Social Security recipients who lose their benefits to challenge the action if they can argue that there is good cause to disregard the warrants. The burden remains on the retiree, however, to reverse a benefit cutoff order.
As a result, public defender Schweiger said, once the project is in full operation, he expects to get calls "from hysterical people in desperate need" of resolving warrants.
But, he said, "it will take time, and time is something [they] don't have — because their income is cut off."
Many of the poor, sick and elderly who dominate the welfare lists and, therefore, the resulting warrant matches, are ill-equipped to challenge bureaucratic and legal obstacles when their benefits are stopped.
Ford of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities told Congress that the group was "concerned for people with mental impairments" who may not be aware of violations or understand their legal status.
Ford cited the case, also reviewed by The Times, of a troubled Minnesota man wanted in Ohio for stopping rail traffic for two hours while he contemplated jumping to his death from a Toledo bridge.
Police never served a warrant on Eddy Haverstock of Duluth. Once negotiators and emergency crews talked him down from the train trestle, he was hospitalized for psychiatric care. He later moved back to Minnesota, unaware he was wanted in Ohio.
"I got on top and didn't care," said Haverstock, recalling that night on the bridge in July 2000.
"I had no idea that I did something wrong. I thought I was doing something to myself."
In Minnesota, Haverstock was hospitalized again for suicidal episodes and diagnosed with major depression. But by February 2002, he was responding to outpatient psychiatric treatment and had enrolled in a job training program.
That's when he received his termination notice. The computer had found the Ohio warrant, and Haverstock's disability payments stopped.
"He obviously wasn't running away," said Legal Aid attorney Gwen Updegraff.
An administrative law judge ruled that Haverstock was not fleeing from Ohio and that police had chosen not to arrest or extradite him. After eight months and lost benefits of $3,573, Haverstock's disability checks were ordered reinstated and he was repaid the withheld money.
It is fairly common for police to decline to arrest or extradite despite fresh leads from the Fugitive Felon Project on a person's whereabouts.
In 2004, Fugitive Felon computers sorted through millions of warrants.
But police with limited resources routinely prioritize whom to arrest and prosecute, based on such factors as the seriousness of the crime and what it would cost to transport the suspect.
From May 2000 through September 2004, police reported arresting 17,640 suspects located by the project computers. However, police declined to arrest another 16,240, records show.
Of those suspects taken into custody in the last four years, according to Patrick P. O'Connell Jr., inspector general of the Social Security Administration, 88 were seized in homicide cases and 248 in sexual assault cases.
One of those was Aaron Anderson, 65, wanted in the 2003 shooting death of a Florida preacher.
Anderson moved around the country evading authorities for two months, but kept returning to bank ATMs to withdraw direct-deposited SSI funds.
The wanted man eventually notified Social Security that he was moving to the West Coast and provided a new address — a San Diego homeless shelter. Anderson was arrested and is awaiting trial.
Statistics O'Carroll provided to The Times show that fewer than 10% of warrants involve violent crimes. Among the most common are warrants for probation violations.
A typical case is that of a Sun Valley, Nev., man with heart trouble and unresolved legal problems.
Gene Schuller, 62, a former Marine, is fighting to keep his $997-a-month Social Security disability check and access to medical care at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Reno, all threatened because of an old warrant in California.
Schuller did time in Santa Cruz County Jail for multiple drunk driving arrests in the early 1990s, and was released on probation.
"I was a mess," he conceded, saying the violations occurred when he was going through a divorce. Schuller thought he long ago paid the price and did his time.
According to court records, however, Schuller failed to stay in touch with his probation officer, and a warrant was issued in 1994. Because of that, an order cutting off his benefits is pending a decade later.
"I don't know why they don't just arrest me here and extradite me if it's that important," Schuller said. "I'm not hiding from anyone."
Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said denial of benefits in such cases was a penalty "out of proportion" to minor probation violations.
"To deny somebody Social Security benefits is to deny them their livelihood," Travis said. "For a lot of people, this is literally life and death."
Despite the high incidence of declined arrests, O'Carroll said law enforcement agencies were grateful for the leads that the computer matching project provided.
During an interview in his Baltimore office, he leafed through pages of messages from police agencies, reading excerpts:
"Deeply appreciate your assistance."
"Good information — keep it coming."
"Subject arrested outside parents' residence in a lawn chair drinking a beer."
The expanded screening program is expected to save federal dollars. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected the program would reduce retirement payments by $588 million over the next 10 years.
CBO analysts also predict that some people fearful of being caught in the Fugitive Felon dragnet will stop using their Medicare benefits. That could save the government another $199 million, the analysts say.
Fritz Streckewald, chief of Social Security Administration's benefits policy, said the savings would have a negligible effect on the trust fund.
"I mean, it's not a small number, but in terms of the trust fund solvency, it's a very tiny fraction," Streckewald said.
Debate focuses more on the project's application than on its economics.
Lienhard of the Urban Justice Center calls the expanded Fugitive Felon Project an "absurd and cruel policy" that he predicts "will push more of our neediest elderly and disabled citizens into homelessness and crime."
But Inspector General O'Carroll said he was satisfied with the project.
"The intent of Congress was to make America safer, to identify people that have warrants outstanding [so] that we can provide law enforcement information that will help find them.
"I think that we've accomplished that," O'Carroll said.
By Sandy Bergo Special to The Times February 13, 2005
Times researcher Janet Lundblad in Los Angeles contributed to this report
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times
Times researcher Janet Lundblad in Los Angeles contributed to this report
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times