In these divisive times, Census worker Russell Haas has come to expect some resistance when he goes door to door to count the residents of the rugged communities near Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano. He didn’t expect to get arrested.
An attempt to get one resident, a county police officer, to fill out Census forms landed Haas in the back of a patrol car with a trespassing charge.
The case, now in federal court, has created a rare instance in which federal prosecutors have stepped in to serve as criminal defense attorneys.
"I was trained to encourage everybody to be in the Census," said Haas, 57, a former New Jersey police officer.
Hawaii had one of the nation’s lowest response rates in the 2000 count, and officials focused on getting a more accurate tally in 2010. They’ve tried to encourage people, especially native Hawaiians, to be counted so the state gets its fair share of federal dollars.
In the Big Island’s Puna district — a craggy rural area where residents value privacy, independence and the simple life — Haas said he anticipated some resistance, especially from the area’s Vietnam War veterans and marijuana growers.
Instead, most of them took the census forms without a fight, "even the angry ones," he said.
When he went out on March 20, he said, he found trouble when a resident refused to accept Census forms and told Haas to leave his fenced property.
"When this guy showed me his badge, I went, ‘Dude, you have to be in the Census, what are you talking about?"’ Haas said.
The resident continued to refuse to take the Census, and Haas said he waited outside a chain-link fence while the resident called his co-workers at the Hawaii County Police Department.
When police arrived, instead of asking the resident to accept the forms as required by federal law, the officers crumpled the papers into Haas’ chest and handcuffed him, Haas said. The department hasn’t released the name of the officer who told Haas to leave his property.
When the case goes to U.S. District Court on July 22, Hawaii County Deputy Prosecutor Roland Talon will argue that Haas overstepped his authority by opening the resident’s unlocked fence, entering his property and refusing to leave until he had been asked several times.
"There were other measures that he could have taken which would not have risen to the level of him trespassing onto the property," Talon said in an interview.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Butrick claims Haas is protected by the U.S. Constitution for actions taken in his capacity as a federal employee. Butrick filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss the case.