Can you get in trouble for not filling out your Census form?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
March 18 2010 10:30 AM

Count Me Out

Will you get in trouble for dodging the Census?

Can you get in trouble for not filling out your Census form?

During the last U.S. Census, 10 years ago, Ted Rose looked at what might happen if you neglect to fill out your form. That "Explainer" column has been updated, and reprinted below.

Earlier this week, American households began receiving the 98 million Census forms sent out by the federal government. Each envelope says, "Your response is required by law." What law is this? Has anybody been prosecuted for not responding?

The Census Bureau likes to stress the positive benefits of participation in the survey, but the proverbial stick does exist. Under Title 13 of the U.S. Code, you can be fined up to $100 for refusing to complete a census form and $500 for answering questions falsely. However, the Website for the U.S. Census Bureau points out that the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 effectively increased these minimum fines to $5,000. Noncompliance used to bring the possibility of a 60-day prison sentence and a one-year prison term for false answers, but Congress struck those provisions in 1976.

For all that, a Census Bureau FAQ on the subject of the American Community Survey (PDF) concedes the following:

The Census Bureau is not a prosecuting agency. Failure to provide information is not likely to result in a fine. The Census Bureau staff work to achieve cooperation and high response rates by helping the public understand that responding to the ACS is a matter of civic responsibility, and prefers to encourage participation in this manner rather than prosecution.

Although prosecutions are uncommon, people have been successfully tried and convicted. In 1960, for instance, William Rickenbacker of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., answered the basic census questions but refused to answer the expanded questionnaire, which asked about the economic status of his household. He argued that it represented an invasion of his privacy. A federal judge disagreed, fining him $100 and handing him a 60-day suspended prison sentence.

Rickenbacker answered some questions, so his noncompliance was obvious—but how would the federal authorities know about someone who simply refused to return the form? When a census form is not returned, the Census Bureau sends workers to follow up in person. They will return as many as six times to the same residence. That information can be referred to the Justice Department as the basis for prosecution.

Not all prosecutions go smoothly for the government, however. Hawaii resident William Steele appealed a conviction and an accompanying $50 fine he received for not fully answering his questionnaire during the 1970 census. Steele argued that he had been singled out for prosecution because he participated in a public protest against the census. An appeals court agreed and threw out his conviction.

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