Crime stoppers

Getting away with unchecked misdemeanors

“Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when they come for you?”

The theme from the TV program Cops implies that the law-and-order forces will track down the bad boys, serve them with an arrest warrant, handcuff them, and haul them off to jail. It’s a comforting thought, but it’s also a simplistic notion that fails to account for the prioritizing that every law-enforcement agency does routinely.

If the bad boys have committed one or more felonies—a serious crime such as murder, rape or burglary—the cops will indeed work hard to track them down for a confrontation, which may or may not be easy. If the crime was a misdemeanor—a lesser criminal offense—the cops will likely make a limited search effort.

“The reality is that unless the warrant is for a serious crime, the police are not going to pound the pavement in relentless search of the miscreant,” Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said.

“Instead, the police put the [misdemeanor] warrant in the ‘system'—i.e., either the state or national computer base—and depend on the fact that most folks who are criminally inclined will cross paths with the police again, and their warrant will pop up when the police run a ‘wants and warrants’ check on the person.”

Finding the miscreant is the heart of the matter, and failure to find has resulted in 4,926 currently outstanding arrest warrants and bench warrants in Butte County. However, 2,047 of them are from one to five years old, and 1,324 of them are more than five years old, according to the latest official figures (2006) compiled by a consortium of local agencies: the Sheriff’s Office, the Probation Department, the District Attorney’s Office, the Superior Court, and the chiefs of police of the cities in Butte County.

A judge issues an arrest warrant for a suspect when police provide enough evidence so he or she can reasonably conclude that “probable cause” exists linking the suspect and the crime. A judge issues a bench warrant for someone when that person has been charged and released, usually after posting bail, with a future court appearance date but fails to show up in court on that date. Judges issue a lot more bench than arrest warrants. In fact, last year judges issued 4,007 bench warrants, as opposed to 1,232 arrest warrants,

The same 2006 figures show 953 felony warrants issued, compared to 4,286 misdemeanor warrants. Of the total number of warrants (5,239), 3,303 were served, 920 are still outstanding, and 1,016 were recalled by the judge who issued them, usually because the person involved showed up voluntarily.

In 2000, Butte County received a two-year state grant to fund a special effort to clear up as much of the warrant backlog as possible, Ramsey indicated. The report states that 271 felony warrant case files were “worked up for possible service,” said Butte County Undersheriff John Callas, author of the final report required by the grant.

The search process involved skip tracing through electronic data bases, interviewing pertinent witnesses, and networking with a large number of law enforcement and governmental agencies. These efforts resulted in the arrest of 71 individuals in locations all over the nation. Callas wrote that one of the more unusual aspects of the search was that nine of the suspects were located but confirmed as being dead.

Twenty-eight of the warrants had been recalled either because the wanted individual had voluntarily appeared, which was most likely, or too much time had elapsed to guarantee the suspect’s constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial. The remaining 163 suspects couldn’t be found, usually because they had multiple out-of-state addresses. The report concluded that 16 had fled to foreign countries.

Long term, Ramsey said, only one suspect out of 10 can successfully run and hide from a warrant.