Anaheim police surveillance of poor may overstep federal law
Police routinely access confidential Housing Authority data to look for crime suspects. Advocates say that's illegal.

The Orange County Register | March 23, 2009
By Tony Saavedra

Anaheim police routinely scour city records of families receiving federal rental assistance to look for links to crime suspects, a practice that critics say amounts to placing the poor under illegal surveillance.

The Anaheim Housing Authority is the only rental assistance agency in Orange County that shares its files names, Social Security numbers, addresses with police, as part of the agency's effort to enforce program rules. However, legal experts and community activists say such broad access to housing records violates federal law.

U.S. Code Section 1437z of Title 42 states that police can request data only on specific individuals who are fleeing to avoid prosecution, custody and confinement; are violating probation or parole; or have information necessary to law enforcement. Police must provide the housing authority with the name of the individual being sought.

"As you can see, (the law) is tailored to avoid this kind of fishing expedition," said Richard Marcantonio, head attorney for The Public Advocates, a San Francisco law firm that represents the poor.

After being contacted by The Orange County Register, officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds the program, said the agency would review Anaheim's practice.

Amin David, president of Los Amigos of Orange County, a minority-rights group, says Anaheim's practice is akin to stopping every car for fear someone is violating traffic laws.

"It seems to be profiling," David said.

Anaheim Councilwoman Lorri Galloway said she was surprised to hear of the close relation between the police and the Housing Authority.

"Certainly if it violates the law, it's a no-brainer; it shouldn't be done," Galloway said.

Anaheim Police Chief John Welter and Mayor Curt Pringle forwarded the Register's request for interviews to city information officers, who in turn forwarded the request to Housing Authority Executive Director Lisa Stipkovich.

Stipkovich defended the city's 7-year-old practice of sharing housing information with police.

"I don't know how else you could monitor the crime activity and know what's going on," she said. Stipkovich added, however, that the city will review the legality of its program. "We don't want to do anything inappropriate."

The controversy involves Anaheim's management of the federal "Section 8" housing program, which pays for a portion of its clients' rent. There are 6,258 households in the city's program, with a lengthy waiting list. Federal regulations require that applicants consent to an initial background check. Anyone convicted of violent felonies or drug-related crimes is not eligible for assistance. The rules apply to everyone living in the home.

Those already receiving assistance can be booted from the program for committing a felony or even being suspected of one or for having unreported income as well as other violations.

Grace Stepter, Anaheim housing program manager, said a full-time police officer works with the Housing Authority to find violators. One method employed by police, Stepter said, is to compare the addresses of Section 8 clients with the addresses of people arrested or contacted by officers. A match would prompt further scrutiny.

"We need this information in order for us to build a case," she said. About 26 families have been terminated from the program during the past 10 months for rule violations, most of them white or Latino.

Housing authorities for Orange County as well as Santa Ana and Garden Grove say they aggressively investigate complaints and tips on specific violators, but are uncomfortable using the police to do blanket surveillance.

"We have to have justifiable cause. We don't just give (police) a list of all our clients. There are federal privacy laws," said Mary Ann Hamamura, deputy director of community development in Garden Grove. The city has 2,300 families receiving rental assistance, with an additional 500 waiting.

In Santa Ana, the housing authority uses private investigators to look at specific complaints among the city agency's 2,558 clients. 

Housing experts say the purpose of the Section 8 program in recent years has focused on giving poor families the ability to move into middle-class neighborhoods.The program is supposed to provide help without the stigma of taking charity. No one knows that the clients are receiving assistance, except the landlord and the housing agency.

"We typically are very protective about our information. We do not give (police) access, just carte blanche," said John Hambuch, manager of the Orange County Housing Authority, which has 9,623 households in its Section 8 program.

National housing experts debate whether the housing assistance program is linked to crime. 

Livermore police Detective Keith Graves, who specializes in relations between law enforcement and housing authorities, said the community benefits by keeping tabs on Section 8 clients who violate the law.

"What I can tell you about privacy is, you are receiving public funds and part of that is you have to live by certain rules," Graves said.

Marcantonio, who represents Section 8 residents in a discrimination lawsuit against police in the city of Antioch, said the poor should not have to accept illegal surveillance along with public aid.

"Taking the money is not a waiver of your rights against discrimination or your privacy," he said.

In fact, Contra Costa County Counsel Silvano B. Marchesi advised Northern California housing officials not to share their rosters with Antioch police.

"The fact that a person is receiving public assistance is not sufficient legal grounds to subject that person and his or her family to extensive, routine police surveillance," Marchesi wrote in a 2007 opinion.