Getting Away With It?

Oahu has almost 50,000 outstanding bench warrants. Are criminals walking scot-free?


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Photo: Rae Huo

Tucked in the industrial park of Pier 20 sits Oahu’s Sheriff Division’s offices. Several old sheriff patrol cars are parked outside the small, plain-looking building. Inside, a woman sits at her corner desk in a cubbyhole size of a room. Lining the four walls of her office are 12 black filing cabinets. She spends her time organizing and filing the contents. They contain approximately 35,000 of the Island’s 49,914 outstanding bench warrants.

“You should have seen it before we purged a bunch of them. It was worse,” says Lt. Robin Nagamine, who heads the Sheriff’s Special Operation Section, which includes a 16-deputy bench warrant unit. Surprisingly, these cabinets only hold the warrants that the Sheriff deputies serve; Oahu’s almost 15,000 outstanding criminal bench warrants are housed in the main Honolulu Police Department station on Beretania Street.

49,914

The estimated number of oustanding bench warrants on Oahu
 

2,962

The estimated number of oustanding felony bench warrants
 

64

The number of warrants served during the sheriff division's traffic warrant sweep in April
 

16

The number of sheriff deputies who serve bench warrants full time
 

1

The number of HPD officers who serve bench warrants full time

Out of the nearly 50,000 bench warrants that have not been served, an estimated 34,000 are for traffic-related offenses; the Sheriff Division is tasked with serving the bulk of them. The remaining outstanding warrants consist of about 13,000 criminal misdemeanors and about 3,000 criminal felonies. Outstanding warrants have been an issue in the state for years, and a backlog of some sort will always exist; there’s more coming into the system than the Honolulu Police Department and the Sheriff Division can serve. Oahu’s court judges issue 1,000 to 3,000 new bench warrants each month, adding to a pile that also contains warrants issued more than five years ago. Budget cuts and lean staffing contribute to the problem, and while technology is bridging the gap, a streamlined warrant process still does not exist.

A bench warrant is a paper order to arrest someone for breaking the law. District and circuit court judges and the Hawaii Paroling Authority can issue warrants for a number of reasons, including committing a crime or failing to appear in court. For example, say you were caught driving 60 mph in the 45 mph zone near the airport. You’re issued a speeding ticket and told to a pay a fine. You stash it in your sun visor and forget about it. You haven’t paid your ticket, so a judge orders a bench warrant for noncompliance. You now have an outstanding warrant.

Unpaid fines coming from violations such as speeding tickets have denied the state more than $20 million in revenue. Bench warrants can be issued from a pool of more than 1,000 violations, including misdemeanors such as camping in a closed park, shoplifting at a convenience store or parking in a tow-away zone, and felonies such as sexual assault, homicide, grand theft or armed robbery.

Law enforcement is quick to point out however, that 50,000 outstanding warrants does not equal 50,000 criminals—many people in the system have multiple warrants out for their arrest. While it’s reassuring that we don’t have 50,000 criminals roaming the streets, it’s still vexing that 50,000 crimes have gone unpunished.

For the warrant process to be successful, warrants must be issued and served in an efficient and timely manner. A backlog not only adds to the burden of law-enforcement agencies, but also poses a threat to the safety of the community, and lets violators get away with their crimes.
 

Why There’s a Backlog

Nearly 50,000 outstanding warrants sounds like an exorbitant number, given Oahu’s population of more than 905,000 people, but it’s been even higher in recent years. In 2006, the warrant backlog on Oahu was an estimated 61,500, and that was after the state Judiciary dismissed more than 25,000 traffic-related warrants from the system—some dating back as far as the early ’90s—in 2005. 

“Most people pay their fines,” says state Department of Public Safety deputy director James Propotnick. “That’s not the problem. It’s what I refer to as the ‘scofflaws’ that create the problem.” Most are not robbing houses or sticking up banks, he says, “but they ignore their legal responsibilities, such as a parking ticket—they tear it up and throw it away or they stuff it in their glove box and collect them.”

Serving these types of warrants are a low priority, which means they build up the most. In addition, there is no centralized, statewide warrant database for law enforcement to easily check whether a person has a warrant or not, which also contributes to the backlog.

Hawaii is not unique in having a backlog of outstanding bench warrants. For example, Maryland’s Baltimore County had approximately 53,000 outstanding warrants in 2007, with a then-population of almost 786,000. In 1999, Massachusetts had more than 275,000 outstanding warrants, with a population of 6.3 million, before that state took serious measures to reduce the backlog.
 

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