Class-action suit accuses Census Bureau of bias in job screening

Precious Daniels was rejected by the Census Bureau even though her misdemeanor charge was dropped in court.
Precious Daniels was rejected by the Census Bureau even though her misdemeanor charge was dropped in court. (Courtesy Of Precious Daniels - Courtesy Of Precious Daniels)
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By Joe Davidson
Friday, August 20, 2010

Precious Daniels was upset with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan for its stance on health-care legislation last year, so she decided to demonstrate her anger with a peaceful protest.

She blocked the doorway of the company's Detroit headquarters and got arrested for her trouble. Her husband paid the $50 bail, then she was released and told to appear for a court date on a disorderly conduct charge.

When she did, the misdemeanor was dropped. The arresting officer apparently thought so little of the case that he didn't even file the paperwork.

But the arrest means much more to the Census Bureau.

After Daniels applied to help Uncle Sam count his people, he said no.

A fingerprint check "resulted in a positive match with a criminal history record maintained by the FBI," according to her rejection letter. "Based on the nature of the facts disclosed in the record, we find you to be ineligible for this temporary position."

There could not have been much in that record, because Daniels had only the one arrest and no convictions.

"I never thought something that peaceful and well organized would cost me a job with the federal government," she said.

The letter was quite a surprise because, according to the job application, "If you have had a conviction of a violation of the law since age 18 for something other than a minor traffic violation it could be a basis for nonselection." It says nothing about only an arrest record.

"We like to think that you are innocent until proven guilty in our system, but using an arrest record turns that around on its head," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, an organization that promotes criminal-justice reforms.

Daniels was so discouraged by the letter that she crumpled it in frustration and gave up on the census job. Now she's fighting back. She is one of the named plaintiffs in a class-action suit that accuses the Census Bureau of knowingly using a screening process that could result in massive racial and ethnic discrimination.

Administration officials were warned more than a year ago that excluding applicants on the basis of arrest only was not right. "The Census Bureau should not rely on arrest records for which there was no conviction," Stuart J. Ishimaru, then the acting chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, wrote in a July 2009 letter to the Census Bureau and its parent, the Commerce Department. Officials at Commerce and the Census Bureau would not comment on the case. Papers filed by the Justice Department call for the case to be dismissed on procedural grounds.

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