Getting Away With It?
Oahu has almost 50,000 outstanding bench warrants. Are criminals walking scot-free?
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.
The estimated number of oustanding bench warrants on Oahu
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.
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.
Technology Used to Decrease Backlog
Until recently, the state Judiciary and law enforcement used an archaic method in ordering and serving bench warrants. A judge would order a warrant and then sign it. Copies of the warrant would be packaged at the state Judiciary’s office and then transferred to the Sheriff Division and HPD offices for filing.
In March, the state Judiciary debuted the Electronic Bench Warrant (eBW) project. Project specialists say it will reduce the backlog by replacing hard copies of bench warrants with electronic versions. They allow for faster delivery time from the courts to law enforcement and better collaboration between the deputies and officers. Right now eBW only contains traffic-related warrants, and only Oahu and Maui County use the program. The goal is to transition all counties into the system and incorporate criminal warrants into the database.
In her office in Kauikeaouli Hale, Dana Nakasato, a state Judiciary project specialist, types Liholiho Street into eBW’s search bar. A Google map pops up, peppered with 85 dots down the street—representing 85 outstanding traffic-related warrants. She pulls up Oneawa Street in Kailua; there are 56 traffic-related warrants. Along Ala Wai Boulevard there are 250, although there could be more—the system maxes out at 250 search results. Remember, these numbers don’t include criminal warrants.
“This is something we wouldn’t have been able to do before, when we were relying on the hard copy,” says Nakasato, adding that eBW is updated with new warrants every day. The Judiciary also compiled a top-20 list of people with the most outstanding traffic-related warrants—the No. 1 person has 14—and a top-20 list for traffic-related warrants with the highest bail amounts.
The technology has saved the state
Judiciary and law enforcement a lot of time, paper and a few filing cabinets. Deputies and officers are able to print out the bench warrants instead of having to head to the Sheriff offices to pick up the hard copies. Since it’s inception, more than 4,500 traffic warrants have been served using eBW.
The project was best utilized during the Sheriff’s outstanding traffic-warrant sweeps. Although the eBW system is a more organized, searchable database, law enforcement isn’t taking advantage of the technology to its fullest potential because the sweeps have stopped and traffic-related warrants are a low priority.
EBW is an addition to the more than $12 million, statewide court computer system, the Judiciary Information Management System, better known as JIMS. It was initiated in 2005, in an attempt to create a statewide, centralized warrant storage database, and like eBW, it currently only shows traffic-related cases. Law enforcement does not use JIMS to serve warrants, but rather to know who has one to serve them with a hard copy. The system is far from finished—the state Judiciary hopes to have criminal warrants integrated by June 2013. In the meantime, the courts and law enforcement must search several systems for the varying types of cases and warrants.
Sonobe Hong adds that sometimes there is still a lag in generating newly issued warrants, and likewise removing warrants that have already been taken care of. “The concept of the e-Bench Warrant is great—if they can ever get it to do what it’s designed to do,” adds Nagamine.
Criminals have been brought in successfully because of the bench-warrant process. Kendro says that a 19-year-old man, Tariq Holloway, wanted for an alleged shooting in May, was extradited back to Hawaii in August after escaping to Chicago. Police used a warrant to arrest him and he was indicted on attempted-murder charges. Nakasato adds that there have also been recent successes in serving traffic-related warrants. In August, another man, who was eBW’s No. 4 person on the list of highest bail fugitives, was arrested on four outstanding traffic-related warrants with a total bail of $20,250.
When the bench-warrant process works, it works. Now we only need it to work 49, 909 more times.