Getting Away With It?
Oahu has almost 50,000 outstanding bench warrants. Are criminals walking scot-free?
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Why Aren’t More Warrants Being Served?
Authorities say they have neither the staff nor the budget to serve more warrants. The state’s Sheriff Division is made up of 300 deputies, about 180 of which serve on Oahu. Out of the 180, only 16 deputies serve bench warrants fulltime. HPD, on the other hand, has 1,964 officers; however, there is only one lone officer assigned to serving bench warrants fulltime. The rest have the ability to do so, among their other patrolling duties.
“I wish I had a unit twice the size,” says Nagamine. “I could do a lot more, but I have to make do with what I’ve got.”
The Sheriff Division and HPD concentrate on serving outstanding felony warrants first. “The way I structure our team assignments is the most serious warrants are given priority, so that’s all the felony warrants, all the grand jury warrants, all the crimes of violence—they’re assigned to six of my eight teams,” says Nagamine. “The other two teams deal strictly with traffic warrants.”
Major Kurt Kendro, the commander of HPD’s Records and Identification Divi-sion, adds that all of HPD’s officers and detectives also have the ability to serve the traffic-related bench warrants stored at the Sheriff Division. “Many officers are diligent in following which cases are going forward for prosecution involving defendants. So [if they don’t appear in court], when the warrant comes out they’ll go and search for the suspect.”
Despite his confidence in the officers, serious criminals are at large. Kendro says that there is an outstanding bench warrant issued in 1979—for murder. Jim Fulton, executive assistant to City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle, adds there is another, more current, outstanding warrant for murder.
In the past, Nagamine organized traffic-warrant sweeps to reduce the backlog, most recently in April. But, he says, there is not enough overtime funding—and deputies available—for the Sheriff Division to continue them, although each sweep only costs the department $500. The sweeps were successful, with deputies arresting 42 people and serving 64 warrants in April. During a sweep in March they arrested 31 people and served 51 warrants. Warrant sweeps were the most successful strategy in decreasing the backlog; since they have stopped, the backlog has increased.
“Everything is a funding problem,” says Propotnick. “I’m not crying about lack of funding because I understand that there’s only a finite amount of dollars, and I’m not going to ask for more and cry about it; what’s the point?”
Nonservable Warrants Clog the System
As an island that sustains itself largely on tourism, it makes sense that not all of Oahu’s outstanding warrants are for residents. “If a tourist gets a ticket in Waikiki and they go back to Minnesota without paying it, that warrant sits in the system forever,” notes Nagamine.
Traffic-related warrants issued on Oahu cannot be served to individuals who have since moved to a Neighbor Island, the Mainland or overseas. “We’re not going to extradite them. If we really wanted to find them we could but … it’s not worth it,” says Propotnick, citing that it would cost between $8,000 and $9,000 in travel expenses and lawyers’ fees to bring a wanted person back to Oahu; many with outstanding warrant fines of less than $200.
Many types of old warrants are also nonservable. “The Supreme Court has come out with a case ruling that if a warrant goes unserved for two years and two months and we can’t prove any attempts to serve, then basically it will get dismissed for lack of service,” explains Renee Sonobe Hong, a Honolulu deputy prosecutor. For example, if HPD or a Sheriff pulls someone over who has an outstanding traffic-related warrant from 2004, the warrant will not be served, because its statute of limitations has expired.
Expired warrants that cannot be served are sometimes erased from the database to reduce the backlog. Finding older warrants has to be done manually, though, which only happens when there are volunteers available to sift through the filing cabinets. “If there was some method to automatically purge them after two years, you’d never get this huge, accumulated backlog and then we could focus on the newest warrants,” says Nagamine. “If they can’t be adjudicated by the courts, then why are we still hanging onto them?”
This summer, Sonobe Hong put together a list for HPD to pull 4,254 warrants issued in 2004 in order to have them recalled by the courts. “There are certain warrants that we will leave outstanding no matter what, if it’s a negligent homicide case or a sex assault case,” she says. “If it’s a beer in the park, shoplifting a soda—and knowing that the case is going to be dismissed anyway—it’s fair and efficient to try to resolve it rather than have the warrant sit there and let a lot of agencies burn resources for nothing.”
Kendro adds that HPD clerks make sure a warrant is valid before giving it to HPD to serve. If it’s not, they take it out of the system. But clearing a few warrants at a time does not make a dent in Oahu’s backlog.
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