Reps. Sam Johnson of Texas, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, and Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania have introduced a truly scurrilous piece of legislation, the CUFF Act – Control Unlawful Fugitive Felon Act, HR 2504. It is intended to deprive many truly deserving Social Security beneficiaries of their income by amending the “fleeing felon” prohibition on payment of Social Security benefits.
According to a deeply flawed and misleading “Fact Sheet,” issued by the House Ways and Means Committee, the bill is intended to overrule recent court cases that the Committee claims “had the effect of expanding the eligibility of fugitive felons for government benefits.” The bill revises the language of this provision to discontinue benefits for individuals who are “the subject of an arrest warrant,” instead of “fleeing to avoid” arrest.
On the surface, it might seem reasonable to deprive suspects who have outstanding felony warrants of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income. However, the Social Security Act already provides that fleeing felons should lose their benefits. The targets of this bill are persons with outstanding warrants, but are not fugitives. In other words, persons with outstanding warrants that the government does not deem important enough to prosecute.
Middle-class folks who have outstanding felony warrants will know about them because they hold jobs that involve criminal background checks or apply for CCW or pilot licenses. They can afford to hire an attorney to deal with them. Low-income and minority Social Security recipients are often unaware that there are outstanding warrants if they don’t drive or have other contacts with law enforcement. Even if they know about a warrant, they often lack the funds to hire counsel to get them set aside.
A client who came to me in 2006 is an example of the injustice Johnson, Noem, Cramer and Kelly want to inflict on the disenfranchised. Mr. Jones had his Social Security benefits suspended from January 1, 2005 through July 2006, under the so called Social Security Protection Act of 2004. Mr. Jones’s benefits were suspended due to an outstanding warrant from 1968 for passing a bad check. However, this warrant was never served upon him, nor did he have any notice given to him that this warrant existed. Since this was before the nationwide settlement of the court case the CUFF Act is intended to overrule, the Social Security Administration took away his benefits merely because he had an outstanding warrant.
It is worth mentioning with regard to the warrant that the police report associated with the warrant had only a name and an address–no Social Security Number, no date of birth, no middle initial, and, of course, no check to enter as evidence. Apart from the name, there is no indication that Mr. Jones was the person named in the warrant.
Mr. Jones’s family dug up the money to have an attorney file a motion to dismiss the warrant, which was granted in 2006. However, in typical bureaucratic fashion, the Social Security Administration refused to give him his benefits for 2005. They said that because the warrant was dismissed instead of withdrawn, he had still been a “fleeing felon” in 2005. I was able to convince SSA of the error of their ways and Mr. Jones received his benefits for 2005, but under this new law he would have been out of luck.
This legislation is cynically designed to hit hardest those who are most vulnerable. Low income people will have great difficulty dealing with outstanding warrants, no matter how unjustified. Furthermore, the criminal justice system disproportionately criminalizes and incarcerates people of color. Finally, this legislation is totally unnecessary. The Social Security Administration has authority to report beneficiaries with outstanding warrants to law enforcement. If the objective is to get offenders with outstanding warrants off Social Security, SSA can refer them to the police so the warrants can be executed and justice pursued properly.
John B. Payne, Attorney
Garrison LawHouse, PC
Dearborn, Michigan 313.563.4900
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 800.220.7200
©2015 John B. Payne, Attorney