How it’s possible that St Louis has more than 280,000 unserved arrest warrants.
By Nick Selby
ArchCity Defenders, a group that provides pro bono defense to St Louis-area indigent, say municipal courts that use misdemeanor arrest warrants as an opportunity to jail those unable to pay fines may be behaving unconstitutionally. In Guilty and Charged, a series on how courts affect the poor, NPR states that courts are giving jail time not as punishment for the crime, but for failure to pay the increasing fines and fees associated with the criminal justice system.
Ferguson, MO has 40,000 backlogged arrest warrants. Around the United States, courts and law enforcement agencies have backlogs of warrants to arrest people accused of non-violent offenses for failing to respond to the charges. In fact, there’s no city in America that doesn’t have some kind of warrant backlog. New York City has 1.8 million backlogged arrest warrants; St Louis, a city of roughly 320,000, has almost 300,000 warrants. Chicago has more than 120,000; Los Angeles 70,000, Houston 300,000.
How did we get here?
As a society we have agreed, pretty much since the founding of our country, that it is important to enforce laws, and that no one is above them. We have also long agreed that there are classes of offenses — usually referred to as “petty” or “minor” — that we generally feel merit punishment, but not confinement. No one wants to see anyone else locked up for speeding or driving with expired registration, but speeding and registration violations are not OK, nor is saying you’ll show up in court to address an accusation and then blowing it off.
The current system was set up to address just this thesis: no one will throw you in the hoosegow for speeding or having a busted tail light, but when you take that citation and leave the scene, you are being released on your personal recognizance bond. You’re stating, when you sign or accept the ticket, that you understand you’ve been accused of a violation of the law, and that you promise to appear to answer the charge. You can answer it by pleading, “guilty” or, “no contest” and paying your fine, or by pleading “Not Guilty” and going to court.
You’ll note that “None of the above” is not listed as an option. You can’t just break the law, then break your promise to appear or pay, going on your way and never addressing the charge. That’s just not OK by any measure. One of the great things about this country is, if you’re accused of any crime in America, you get your day in court.
You are however, required to show up for that day in court. If that day comes and you’re not there, the judge says, “This person has been accused of a crime, has promised to be here to answer the charge and has failed to appear, so I am ordering the police to locate this person and bring them before me to answer these charges.” Unlike the minor violations that may have started the process, not answering charges and wasting the court’s time is a crime serious enough to merit jail time.
And therein lies the basis for a massive, largely misunderstood, and now controversial American problem.
How the Process Works
When you get a traffic ticket or other misdemeanor citation and don’t answer the charge with a payment or plea, the ticket will usually go to an arrest warrant. Claims that the underlying traffic citations are racially biased and “only for the money” fly in the face of research, which show that cops enforce traffic to reduce other crimes, crashes and fatalities. When cops in Kansas City participated for 29 weeks in 1992–1993 in an experiment in aggressive traffic enforcement, they famously found that traffic enforcement led to a 65% increase in gun seizures and a 49% reduction in gun crime. Properly conducted aggressive traffic enforcement is, unarguably, an important part of neighborhood policing.
If you consider that roughly 40% of the traffic citations that get issued get ignored, and figure further that about 60% of those go to warrant, well, that’s just one heck of a lot of warrants. And this is the fundamental problem. Not racism. Not avarice. The fact is that the people who are issued nearly half the traffic tickets in America blow them off. When you consider that fact, the numbers I cited above on backlog volumes become substantially more understandable.
It’s heartening to know that most of the backlogs are for these relatively less serious offenses. I should state clearly (as a police officer myself) that most warrants for violent crimes are vigorously pursued.
City misdemeanor warrant officers are typically outnumbered by thousands, or even tens of thousands, to one. Misdemeanor warrant backlogs occur because there’s just no way for the very small number of officers assigned to this duty to possibly catch them all. Consider the tiny city of about 5,000 in North Texas where I worked for about four years. Number of outstanding warrants when I started there? 11,000. Number of officers dedicated to closing them? One.
Understanding the Money
And now let’s talk about the money. Because the money is one of the three things that makes all this controversial. Traffic citations, of course, bring in money to the municipality, the county and the state.
When you get a $175 speeding ticket, and you don’t pay it or show up to answer the charges, you’ll likely get a warrant. Depending on the agency, the court and the state, the original fine on the speeding violation will be increased, and a warrant will be issued for your arrest. The warrant itself can have a fine of a couple hundred dollars attached to it. So when you don’t pay or answer, a $175 speeding ticket can turn (after a gestation period of anywhere from three months to as long as a year) into about $500 in fines and fees. Rather than an attempt to penalize, or further indebt, the poor or indigent, this is a legitimate penalty that is necessary for two reasons.
First, as we noted above, as a society we believe there should be some penalty for failing to obey the law. You don’t get to just blow off the judge, the police, your transgression and your fellow citizens. There has to be a consequence to flouting the law. Second, once you fail to appear, the gears of government have to turn – the court has to issue the warrant, a judge has to sign it, a clerk has to file it and an officer has to serve it. All of those people’s time is paid for by the taxpayers, and the violator is now spending real taxpayer dollars for all these steps to happen.
Far from being seen as a money-making endeavor, believe me when I tell you that everyone involved in that process would be much happier to have you pay your original fine and not incur all the added costs.
So now, to continue our example, if a cop stops you for any reason, and they run your name through the system and discover the warrant, you’re left with a fairly unsavory choice: pay the fines and fees tied to the warrants, or sit in jail. Choosing the latter will “pay down” your debt at a rate that varies, but averages $50 per day you “sit,” against the total value of your indebtedness.
That does sound like a potentially abusive, or perhaps it would be better to say, abuseable, bit of power to give an officer over someone who hasn’t even been adjudicated on an accusation of speeding. The ArchCity Defenders state in a report issued this summer that,
Clients reported being jailed for the inability to pay fines, losing jobs and housing as result of the incarceration, being refused access to the Courts if they were with their children or other family members, and being mistreated by the bailiffs, prosecutors, clerks and judges in the courts. Such practices are a serious cause for concern…
It is worth noting that The ArchCity Defenders found that half of the 60 courts they monitored showed no such abuses, and that thirty courts engaged in one each. They call out three courts — Bel-Ridge, Florissant and Ferguson — as being “chronic offenders”.
In other words, in terms of the group included in the study, significant problems were concentrated in 5% of the localities. The New York Times looked at the issue and found that Ferguson had issued more warrants — more than 1500 per 1000 people — than any other court in the state.
Let’s all appreciate how data turns the general to the specific, and how transparency can highlight bad practices so we can all, rightly, focus on them.
In sociologist Alice Goffman’s groundbreaking book, On The Run: Fugitive Life In An American City, she chronicled her six years living among criminals in a Philadelphia neighborhood. Goffman writes of example after example in which she witnessed or learned of arrests by cops employing tactics that leverage the warrant backlog to enable them to arrest almost anyone they want. And, alarmingly, how police wait in hospital emergency rooms to “run” patients against lists of wanted persons. This has the highly undesirable (and possibly illegal) effect of discouraging medical treatment by those who may be ill but who are wanted by the police.
On the other hand, let’s now pay equal attention to the fact that warrants are issued to people who leave society holding the bag for their own failure to maintain responsibility. When a person’s behavior results in citations or arrest, that person is inarguably required to either pay the penalty or to show up and exercise their constitutionally-enshrined right to claim their innocence. This is not a white-black thing, a rich-poor thing, it’s just a “law-and-order-in-civil-society” thing.
You’re not required to pay fines to fight a ticket, you’re required to show up and state your case. If you lose, and you don’t have money, every court in America will set up a payment plan — you can say what you want about backlogs, but when you get a ticket, you pay it. Every court also has programs for the demonstrably indigent.
This is about failing to show up to answer the charges against you. And that is on the fugitive, not the court, not the police — and it is not racist.
The police and municipalities are sworn and duty bound to enforce the law, and courts are similarly required to mete out punishments for those who break it. The police don’t have much in the way of choice in carrying out the orders of a judge who states that the officer “shall locate and arrest” the subject of a warrant — the fugitive — and bring that person before the bench. This takes effort, resources and ultimately money to accomplish safely and effectively.
Most important: law-abiding citizens — and the overwhelming majority of citizens are just that — do not deserve to get stuck with the bill for the misbehavior of a relatively small percentage of the population.
It’s also important to remember that arrest warrants are written and issued by judges, after they have reviewed the facts of the individual case and found that probable cause exists to bring the person in. Anyone who believes that there should be vigorous judicial oversight of arrests should be very pleased to know that it exists in the case of these arrest warrants.
So that’s, “how we got here”. In Part II of this series, I address how to deal with abuses of the system by both fugitives and by the police charged with finding them.