HONOLULU — Prosecutors dropped a trespassing charge Thursday against a part-time U.S. Census employee arrested while handing out government forms in a rural area of Hawaii's Big Island.
A settlement reached in federal court also requires that local police be better trained in how to deal with the workers.
"I hope this doesn't happen to any other Census worker anywhere, anytime," said Russell Haas, 57, who was arrested March 20. "It was a nightmare."
While walking door-to-door handing out Census forms, Haas entered the fenced property of Big Island resident Kenneth Ishii, a county police officer, who refused to take the papers.
Haas waited outside the property while the resident called his co-workers at the Hawaii County Police Department, who had Haas arrested.
Federal law requires residents to accept Census forms, but Hawaii state law provides strong privacy protections for property owners.
This year's count is almost complete, but the U.S. Census agreed to work with local police chiefs and prosecutors for education and training before the next enumeration in 2020. In addition, the Census will evaluate its manuals and procedures used by temporary workers.
"Our overarching goal in this entire matter was to improve the process and make sure something like this doesn't happen again," said Kevin Hashizaki, a Hawaii County prosecutor. "This was probably a better way to settle the matter than litigating it."
Across the country, Census workers met more hostility than they did during the last count a decade ago. The agency reported 436 assaults or threats against enumerators this year as of June 29, more than double the 181 in 2000.
"The vast majority of people agree and cooperate with us," said Jamey Christy, the Los Angeles regional director for the Census who attended Thursday's court hearing. "Clearly, there were issues about property rights and the Census. ... We're very happy this was resolved."
The misdemeanor trespassing charge could have brought maximum penalties of a $1,000 fine and 30 days imprisonment.
Haas, a former New Jersey police officer himself, said he intends to move from Hawaii as a result of the arrest and legal battle. He blamed the Hawaii County Police Department for the squabble, but he also acknowledged he could have handled the confrontation better.
"They're under-trained, and they do stuff that's just wrong," Haas said. "I pushed a little bit harder than I maybe should have."
When Haas first opened Ishii's unlocked chain-link fence, Ishii told him to leave because there were three loose dogs on the property, according to court documents. Haas said he wouldn't leave until he delivered the Census forms, while Ishii repeatedly asked him to go.
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Haas correctly followed Census procedures, Christy said. Prosecutor Hashizaki didn't acknowledge that the trespassing arrest was improper, but he said he agreed to the settlement to save county money and work toward a constructive resolution.
"There were obviously some miscommunications. There were obviously some frustrations," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Butrick, who defended Haas. "It's all reconciled now."
The Census is used to deliver more than $400 billion in federal money to states for infrastructure and services including hospitals, job training centers, schools and emergency services, according to the agency.