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Public Defenders Decry Aid Recipients' Arrests

Critics call U.S. agents' roundup of mostly disabled people an abuse of authority. Some raise questions of possible racial discrimination.

September 04, 2004|David Rosenzweig | Times Staff Writer

Dessie Robinson, a 55-year-old welfare recipient who suffers from a heart ailment, diabetes and ulcers, had just finished showering in her room at a downtown homeless shelter early one morning in July when she heard a loud knock at the door.

Throwing on some clothes, she opened the door and was confronted by half a dozen armed federal agents who proceeded to arrest her on a misdemeanor charge of cheating the government out of $746.10, the monthly payment she receives under the federal program to aid the blind, disabled or elderly poor.

Robinson was among 21 people arrested at gunpoint that week during a sweep targeting individuals who said they hadn't received their monthly Supplemental Security Income checks, but who allegedly cashed the original and the duplicate checks, according to prosecutors.

Most of those taken into custody were physically or mentally disabled and frightened out of their wits as they were handcuffed and hauled off to court, according to lawyers from the federal public defender's office.

Several were schizophrenic. One was blind and in a wheelchair. Another had given birth the previous week. One man was taken to court dressed only in his undershorts. All those arrested, with one exception, were freed several hours later after being arraigned by a magistrate judge.

Federal public defenders, who represent most of the 21 defendants, have denounced the arrests by agents from the Social Security Administration's inspector general's office as an outrageous abuse of authority.

Lara Bazelon, a public defender, said the agents who carried out the arrests "acted like they were on some kind of glorified mission, like they were arresting terrorists from Al Qaeda instead of frightened physically and mentally disabled people, none of whom reasonably could be perceived as posing a threat to anyone."

The arrests were a departure from standard procedure at the U.S. attorney's office. Normally, prosecutors send a summons to a defendant accused of a nonviolent misdemeanor, but that practice was scrapped during this operation.

More puzzling, many of those arrested had previously reached accommodations with the Social Security Administration and were making restitution by having money deducted from future SSI checks, according to court papers.

All were African Americans, a fact that public defenders cited as an indication of possible racial discrimination.

In a gesture considered rare for a prosecutorial agency, U.S. Atty. Debra W. Yang two weeks ago apologized for the arrests in a letter to Christopher Prince, president of the John M. Langston Bar Assn., an African American lawyers group. Prince had written her expressing concern about the roundup.

Summonses were not sent, Yang said, because some defendants had criminal records and Social Security Administration investigators believed they would not appear in court voluntarily.

"All this aside," she wrote, "I agree with you that, in retrospect, in some of these cases we made a mistake and should not have proceeded as we did." Though the arrests were legally valid, she added, prosecutors should have allowed defendants who did not pose a flight risk to appear voluntarily. She promised to return to the standard practice in future cases.

On Friday, Robinson's public defender filed a motion to dismiss the criminal charge against her, contending that she and the others were victims of selective enforcement, a violation of the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause.

The motion by Deputy Federal Public Defender Reuven Cohen accused prosecutors of acting with "an evil eye and an unequal hand" by threatening to ratchet up the charge against Robinson to a felony unless she agreed to plead guilty on their terms.

"Like other African Americans caught up in the government's sweep," he wrote, "she has been told in no uncertain terms" that she will face felony charges in the event that she exercises her right to a public trial, files any pretrial motions or pleads without accepting a plea agreement dictated by the prosecution.

Under that proposed agreement, the prosecution would not ask for any jail time provided that Robinson offered to perform 500 hours of community service, something that white defendants in similar circumstances have not been required to do, according to Cohen. He said the prosecution's terms were "condescending and paternalistic" and that Robinson and many of the others would not be able to perform community service because of their disabilities.

Except for the 21 defendants, Cohen wrote, his office has been unable to identify any other defendants who have been arrested and prosecuted in the same fashion in the federal judicial district that includes Los Angeles.

Though not specifically accusing the government of singling out the defendants because they were black, the motion said that race was a likely factor. The defense reserved the right to raise the issue as it gathers more evidence in the case.

Responding to the allegation of selective enforcement, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office said Friday that "race never plays any role in our charging decisions, and that certainly applies to the case against Ms. Robinson and the others."

David Butler, special agent in charge of the inspector general's Western regional office, declined to comment, referring all questions to the prosecutor's office.

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