Hawaii Arrest Warrants

Arrest Warrants Backlog Tops 61,000
In game of catch-me-if-you-can, suspects are winning.
By Ken Kobayashi and Jim Dooley Advertiser Staff Writers

Hawaii Arrest WarrantsO’ahu has an
estimated backlog of 61,500 bench warrants, costing the state a potential
$20 million in unpaid fines and fees and allowing defendants to avoid
charges as routine as running a red light and serious as negligent
homicide.

Largely because the state Sheriff Division and the Honolulu Police
Department lack the personnel to serve the backlogged bench warrants, the
orders — most for traffic cases and some dating to the
1980s — remain stored at the two agencies.

An Advertiser investigation of the unserved warrants found:

Poor coordination among law enforcement agencies and the courts is
contributing to the problem, resulting in long delays in processing
warrants, missed opportunities to serve the orders and, in some cases,
failure to capture fugitives.

A new $13 million state court computer system designed to help reduce
the number of unserved warrants has made the problem worse, at least for
the short term.

The state sheriff’s department — the agency tasked
with serving more than 80 percent of O’ahu’s 61,500 unserved warrants
— has only 12 full-time officers dedicated to serving
warrants.

As sheriff deputies and police work to reduce the backlog, the courts
continue to produce as many as 100 new warrants daily, virtually ensuring
that authorities will never solve the problem without additional
help.

To get a handle on the backlog, the Judiciary last year purged more
than 25,000 old traffic warrants, some for major violations.

Prosecutors, largely because they lack funding, can decline to
extradite suspects — located by sheriffs
— who are wanted on felony warrants and have left the
state, and have done so in about 250 cases since the 1980s.

NATIONWIDE PROBLEM

O’ahu is not alone in dealing with what is a costly, potentially
dangerous backlog of warrants. The Neighbor Islands and other localities
across the country face similar stores of unserved arrest orders.

“It’s a dirty little secret,” said David A. Harris, a criminal justice
expert and law professor at University of Toledo College of Law.
Jurisdictions nationwide have invested insufficient effort and manpower
in catching those wanted on warrants — and those being
sought know it, Harris said.

The number of Hawai’i’s warrants, Harris says, appears to be typical
of the problem facing most other states. Delaware, for example, a state
with roughly the same population as O’ahu, faced 70,000 unserved “writs,”
which are similar to warrants, before it recently took steps to reduce
its backlog.

Judiciary officials downplay the public safety concern, noting that
most of those wanted on warrants arise out of driving violations; an
estimated 1,500 deal with felonies.

“The majority of traffic bench warrants were issued for failure to
appear in court for minor or nonserious traffic infractions, and many of
the persons who committed these offenses may be described as
irresponsible scoff-laws, rather than dangerous criminals,” said Marsha
Kitagawa, state Judiciary spokeswoman.

But for the mother of a 7-year-old boy killed by a drunken driver, the
unserved traffic warrants are particularly disturbing.

Earl Franca Jr., had at least five outstanding traffic warrants when
he struck Ethan Thomas as the boy crossed Farrington Highway near Kahe
Point five years ago.

“It’s appalling,” says Patricia Thomas, 39, of Kalihi, when she
recently learned from The Advertiser that Franca was never arrested on
pending warrants for speeding and other citations prior to the boy’s
death. “The state should have caught him.”

But even if officials catch up with defendants, there is no guarantee
they will be held to account.

A practice not widely known even in the legal community allows law
enforcement officials to turn down extradition of felony defendants who
have left the state, largely because it is costly to return them. About
250 charged with felonies dating to the 1980s have escaped prosecution by
leaving the Islands, The Advertiser found.

The cases underscore a continuing community dilemma: balancing limited
resources against the demand for justice.

MOUNTING WARRANTS

Bench warrants are issued by the courts to secure the arrest of men
and women for several reasons: they are charged by grand juries with
felony offenses, have failed to show up for criminal proceedings, have
violated the terms of probation or have failed to pay court-ordered fines
and fees.

The warrants are issued in only a fraction of the traffic and other
criminal cases processed by state courts each year. Many offenders have
more than one bench warrant outstanding, some because they didn’t answer
an earlier warrant. Once issued, the warrants are transferred to state
sheriffs and police, who must find the individuals named and formally
serve the order.

State officials acknowledge the growing warrants problem, and worry
about the message it sends to the community.

“I believe that respect for the rule of law is decreased where arrest
warrants of any kind go unserved for long periods of time,” said Attorney
General Mark Bennett, the state’s chief law enforcement officer.

But Bennett has called only for a task force to look into the problem
and neither the state Department of Public Safety, which oversees the
sheriffs, nor the Honolulu police have proposed more funding to
specifically address the issue.

The overriding reason is that additional personnel to serve the
warrants would be expensive.

According to Lt. Frank Dela Rosa of the Sheriff Division, a qualified
warrants deputy costs the state around $50,000 a year in salary,
training, equipment and fringe benefit expenses.

Based on the success rate of recent warrant sweeps by sheriffs, it
would take 20 full-time deputies at least 2 1/2 years to serve the
traffic warrants outstanding on O’ahu at a cost of $2.5 million. The
final bill could be lowered by fines and fees collected from traffic
offenders but raised by the costs of trying and imprisoning convicted
offenders.

More police would be similarly costly. All police officers are
expected to watch out for those wanted on warrants and to serve them when
defendants are located. But the price tag of a strengthened police effort
isn’t clear.

Honolulu police Chief Boisse Correa said his department does what it
can with limited resources, targeting “persons who pose the greatest risk
to the community, such as repeat offenders who are actively committing
crimes.”

The department “would welcome additional staffing” Correa said, but
added, “we do not anticipate any increase at this time.”

BACKLOG ‘UNACCEPTABLE’

Coordination has also proven frustrating for all involved. Because
three agencies deal with warrants — the courts,
sheriffs and police — the process inevitably breaks
down. The sheriffs say they don’t get the issued warrants from the
Judiciary in a timely manner; the police sometimes see pending warrants
in the computer system that can’t be served because they lack hard
copies; and the courts may turn away people with warrants even when they
show up at the Judiciary’s door, saying it is the sheriffs and police who
are responsible for serving the orders.

A new computer system, the Judiciary Information Management System,
known as JIMS, will greatly improve issuing and tracking bench warrants
once it is can be fully operated, said Corinne Watanabe, Intermediate
Court of Appeals judge and co-chairwoman of the Judiciary’s Executive
Committee on Technology and Information Management.

Still, the new efficiencies promised by the system won’t kick in for
at least another three months and only if the Legislature approves
changes to existing state law, according to Wata-nabe. Meanwhile, 3,900
new traffic court arrest warrants ordered by O’ahu District Court judges
since the JIMS computer system went online in early November had not been
sent by the courts to sheriffs by early January, court officials said.
The new warrants may be transferred by mid-April or earlier, according to
Judiciary spokeswoman Kitagawa.

Honolulu City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle isn’t happy with the
delay.

“All (JIMS) does is serve to aggravate an already existing and
unacceptable backlog,” he said.

‘IRRESPONSIBLE ADULTS’

Nearly 51,000 of the unserved O’ahu warrants for traffic cases are
stored in court computers or held by the Sheriff Division, filed in nine
cabinets in a state Capitol basement office. Honolulu police say they
have more than 10,500 warrants for misdemeanor and felony cases filed at
their Beretania Street headquarters.

All of these unserved warrants mean that thousands of people, some of
whom could pose a threat to public safety, are walking the streets and
driving the roadways without restraint.

Police make a special effort to serve warrants for the most serious
felonies, and the sheriffs recently increased periodic sweeps to serve a
few dozen warrants at a time. Four sweeps conducted in November and
December led to enforcement of 99 warrants and the arrests of 47 people,
the Sheriff Division’s Dela Rosa said.

Nonetheless, law violators soon find that if they ignore the warrants,
there’s a good chance they won’t get nabbed unless stopped by law
enforcement for another reason, such as a traffic violation.

Wahiawa resident Rebekah Parsons, 22, recently paid $225 for her
traffic case, including a $50 collection fee for a bench warrant issued
after she earlier failed to show up in court.

“That’s a lot of irresponsible adults,” she said about the outstanding
warrants. “If they can live with the fact that it might come around and
get them, that’s their choice. But I don’t want that on my
shoulders.”

Others, however, have no qualms about walking away from their fines
and court dates.

“It does undermine confidence in the justice system as a whole when
people find out that lots of folks don’t take their obligation to show up
and face the consequences of their actions seriously,” law professor
Harris said. “And we don’t make them do that.”

WRONG MESSAGE

The public pays for unserved warrants in more ways than may seem
obvious.

Motorists who avoid facing the consequences of their criminal traffic
citations may create other hazards on the streets, drive up the cost of
insurance for law-abiding drivers, and commit even more serious
crimes.

Thousands of the warrants involve charges against motorists accused of
driving without licenses or insurance.

Michael Onofrietti, AIG Hawaii Insurance Co. vice president, was “a
little bit stunned” by the high numbers of outstanding warrants.

Industry studies show that people who drive uninsured tend to get into
more accidents. “So it’s an obvious public safety issue,” he said.

It can also be costly to consumers. The best predictor of whether
someone is likely to get into an accident is whether they consciously
obey traffic laws, said Tim Dayton, GEICO general manager in Hawai’i.

“To the extent that there are people out there who should be arrested
but aren’t, that costs everyone else more money,” he said.

Law professor Harris doesn’t believe the unserved traffic warrants
pose a major public safety problem because many might have forgotten
about the tickets or have other excuses.

But at least one Honolulu attorney believes this broken warrants
system serves only to escalate crimes.

“If an individual feels that the judicial system is asleep in allowing
him to get away with criminal behavior — even criminal
behavior that seems relatively not serious in that person’s mind; not
driving with insurance, driving without a license —
then it follows in that person’s mind that he can get away with more
serious behavior, such as driving while drunk,” says attorney Richard
Turbin, who represented Harold Keith Thomas, Ethan’s father.

Shortly after 8 p.m. on June 8, 2001, Ethan, his father, brother and
sister got off a bus and began crossing Farrington Highway to go to the
beach. They planned to celebrate Ethan’s seventh birthday of a week
earlier.

Harold Thomas, 58, could not be located to comment for this story. But
according to his 2002 deposition in a civil case, he and his son were
holding hands as they walked near the highway median when they were
struck by Earl Franca Jr.’s car.

“As I was hit by the car and felt him pull away, his hand pull away,
and seen the car pass, and Ethan was gone,” he said.

The father said he managed to get to his son and place his face next
to the boy.

“He said, ‘Help me, Daddy,’ ” the father recalled. “I said, ‘I can’t,’
and he told me, ‘It’s OK. I love you,’ and died.”

Franca’s blood alcohol content registered at 0.16, twice the legal
limit, according to police reports. He was speeding in his wife’s
uninsured 1976 Toyota Corolla, traveling at more than 60 mph in a 35-mph
zone.

At the time, Franca had traffic warrants dating as far back as 1995.
He had been charged with speeding, failing to have insurance, overtaking
a vehicle on the right shoulder, fraudulent use of license plates and
driving without a license, traffic records show. In one case, Franca had
admitted guilt, but made only partial payment of court-ordered fines.

He was served with his warrants only after he surrendered following a
negligent homicide indictment for Ethan’s death in 2004. The traffic
charges were later dropped because of the age of the cases and because
Franca repaid his outstanding fine, according to court records.

Franca, a 32-year-old laborer from Wai’anae, pleaded no contest to the
negligent homicide charge. He is currently serving a maximum 10-year
prison term at Tallahatchie Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Miss. He
declined to comment for this story.

According to court files, Ethan’s father and mother, now divorced,
sued the state; city; Franca and his wife; and Nancy’s Kitchen, a Waipi’o
Gentry restaurant where Franca had been drinking.

The suit alleged the state negligently designed the highway, the city
failed to place a crosswalk near the bus stop and Nancy’s Kitchen served
Franca alcohol. Ethan’s family recently received a $95,000 settlement
— $5,000 each from the state and city, $65,000 from
the restaurant and $20,000 from insurance.

The Francas did not contribute to the settlement; they defaulted.
Patricia Thomas’ lawyer, Christopher Dias, said the Francas did not have
assets that the Thomases could collect.

No one can say if Ethan’s death could have been avoided had Franca
been brought before the courts on his warrants. But Patricia Thomas
believes had Franca been arrested on his warrants, the chances of the
tragedy happening could have been reduced.

“It might have slowed him down,” said Patricia Thomas.

Ethan’s death “never should have happened,” his mother said, holding
back tears. “I have to live with that for the rest of my life.”

“He said, ‘Help me, Daddy.’ I said, ‘I can’t,’ and he told me, ‘It’s
OK. I love you,’ and died.”

Source: http://www.honoluluadvertiser.com/

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