Tuesday, October 14, 2003
C.A. Upholds Photographing, Fingerprinting of Welfare Applicants
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Rules establishing a statewide system for photographing and fingerprinting those who apply for and receive government assistance, as a means of preventing fraud, have been upheld by the Third District Court of Appeal.
The justices Thursday overturned a writ of mandate directing the Department of Social Services to modify some of the rules.
DSS established the Statewide Fingerprint Imaging System in response to 1996 legislation directing it to “design, implement and maintain” such a system for use in connection with the determination of eligibility for food stamps and for benefits under what was then known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children.
AFDC is now known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and is administered in this state as part of the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids, or CalWORKS, program.
The Legislature declared that a fingerprint identification system is necessary in order to prevent fraudulent applicants from obtaining aid under multiple names or in multiple counties. The data obtained is confidential and can only be used to prevent welfare fraud.
Attorneys affiliated with Legal Services of Northern California and the California Coalition of Welfare Rights Organizations challenged SFIS as, among other things, an invasion of privacy and religious freedom. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Ronald B. Robie, subsequently elevated to the Third District, rejected the constitutional arguments, but agreed that some aspects of the rules were outside the scope of legislative authority.
Justice Fred Morrison, writing for the Court of Appeal, agreed with the trial judge that SFIS is constitutional. He also concluded that the Legislature intended to grant DSS the flexibility to develop a workable identification system and that the department did not go beyond what lawmakers envisioned.
Fingerprinting of welfare applicants, Morrison reasoned, is no more invasive than taking prints from driver’s license or bar exam applicants. And while some believe that fingerprinting “is a mark of the devil and stains the soul with sin,” the justice said, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the need for prevention of fraud in the operation of government programs is sufficiently compelling to overcome religious objections to the taking of fingerprints.
Morrison rejected the trial judge’s conclusion that DSS exceeded the scope of the authorizing legislation when it declared in the rules that “failure” to comply with the requirements would result in loss of aid. Robie said that went too far, because the authorizing legislation provided that aid would be denied or cut off only if the applicant “refuses” compliance.
But Morrison agreed with DSS that because the rules require that recipients be provided with an explanation of the program and with notice and a fair hearing before aid can be withheld as a sanction for non-compliance, there is no rational distinction between failing and refusing to comply.
The justice also rejected Robie’s conclusion that the department had no authority to apply the rules to persons who applied for aid on behalf of dependent family members prior to the date the authorizing legislation was enacted. The trial judge’s interpretation, Morrison said, is inconsistent with lawmakers’ intent “that all applicants and recipients be imaged to prevent fraud.”
The case is Sheyko v. Saenz, 03 S.O.S. 5335.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company