Description of the Warrant Officer Program
Hancock County, Indiana
A Study Of Outstanding DWI Warrants
Connie H. Wiliszowski
U.S. Department of Transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Washington, D.C. 20590
Contract Number DTNH22-98-R-05110
Mid-America Research Institute, Inc. of New England
TABLE OF CONTENTS
This report is part of a larger project A Study of Outstanding DWI Warrants (NHTSA contract number DTNH22-98-R-05110). One objective of the study was to document practical strategies that could be used to minimize outstanding DWI warrants, thus providing another tool that communities could use to deter DWI offenders. During our search for innovative and promising strategies that jurisdictions are using to eliminate or minimize the outstanding DWI warrant problem in their communities, project staff met a Judge from Hancock County, Indiana who had organized an effort to deal with defaulters from his court by arranging for funding to hire a part-time Special Deputy to serve outstanding warrants.
We note that this approach, while smaller in scope than the other two programs we have reviewed, directly attacks the problem in a way which could be replicated or modified to benefit other smaller communities. As with Chemung County, New York, one of the other two jurisdictions highlighted during the study, Hancock County also had the most problems with non-compliance of court-ordered sanctions (e.g., payment of fines, completion of treatment programs) by offenders, rather than with individuals failing to appear during the adjudication process.
The presiding Judge of the Superior Court II for Hancock County, Indiana was frustrated as a jurist with the ever increasing number of outstanding warrants for offenders who failed to comply with court orders. The local sheriff's department is the law enforcement agency decreed by statute to serve warrants, but as with many law enforcement agencies contacted during this study, the department did not have the personnel nor budgetary resources to routinely serve warrants, except in cases related to felony crimes. On several occasions, at the request of the Judge, deputies would attempt to locate defaulters, but funding these attempts was always an issue.
The Judge reported he was tired of being thwarted in efforts to make certain that offenders complied with court orders and frustrated that, not only was there a large number of outstanding warrants, but that the number of outstanding warrants increased weekly. He decided that the defaulters must be located. As a jurist he was concerned that a wrong message was being sent to defaulters that they could ignore court-ordered sanctions without fear of reprisal. And this was often true because, although there was a chance defaulters might be identified during a stop for a traffic violation, some law enforcement agencies in Indiana reportedly would not routinely check their link with NCIC (National Crime Information Center) for outstanding warrants. For all these reasons, the Judge, with the support and cooperation of the Sheriff, decided that a warrant officer was needed. The duties of the warrant officer would exclusively involve locating defaulters and absconders and serving warrants. The keys to creating and maintaining the position were finding funding, and locating the right person with the proper mix of personality and experience to handle the job.
Hancock County, Indiana is a bedroom community east of Indianapolis. One major interstate, highway I-70, passes through the County. The 1990 census listed the population at approximately 45,500, but the community has been growing and the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the current population close to 55,000. The largest community within the County is the city of Greenfield.
In Hancock County there are three trial courts: one circuit court and two superior courts. All three courts have concurrent jurisdiction within the County. The circuit courts in Indiana are the constitutional courts that were set up when the State was incorporated and superior courts are added as the population grows. These courts (called district courts in some states) have general jurisdiction to hear all types of cases ranging from divorce to DUI and murder cases.
Hancock Superior Court II is the DUI court for Hancock County. The Superior Court Judge reports that, with respect to the initial court appearances in DUI-related cases, there have been historically almost no incidences of FTA (failure to appear). He credits this almost absolute compliance rate to two reasons: the initial court appearance is the next business day following arrest, so typically those arrested are escorted to court by members of the Sheriff's Department; and the fact that cash bond is usually required.
However in the past, there was a significant problem with offenders completing court-ordered sanctions such as paying fines, completing educational courses, or refraining from consuming alcohol. In fact, the Judge reported that the most FTAs occurred at later court appearances, and that failure to comply with paying fines for offenses such as DUI was another major problem. His perception was that offenders did not think traffic matters were that serious, nor that law enforcement would seek defaulters. And, as explained in the introduction, the Hancock County Sheriff's Department deputies were not actively seeking non-felony warrants. Thus, the message to defaulters was that typically nothing would be done to make them comply with court-ordered sanctions. The problem became large enough, with monies owed great enough, that the Judge decided something had to be done. With the agreement and support of the Sheriff, he decided to find a way to fund a new position in the Sheriff's Department dedicated to serving warrants.
As in courts everywhere, certain court costs are assessed for each case. For a non-felony DUI case in Hancock Superior Court II, the offender's typical court costs could be $625 which includes a $200 countermeasures fee. Countermeasures fees are assessed on certain types of alcohol and drug offenses, most often for DUI and for marijuana possession. The countermeasures fee is, by State mandate, funneled back into the local community to fund various local programs.
In Hancock County, these countermeasure monies were used to set up a local board, NASA (Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse), which funds local programs through grants. The board follows guidelines outlined by State statute which allow a certain percentage of funds to be allocated for treatment, a certain percentage for law enforcement, etc. NASA reviews grant requests and allocates funds for pertinent programs. The review process is not as stringent as many other state and federal grant requirements. Basically, a letter outlining the proposed use of funds with proper justification is all that is required by the board.
The Judge contacted NASA and proposed hiring a warrant officer, who would serve as a Special Deputy stationed with the Hancock County Sheriff's Department. The Judge asked for funds to cover the salary of this part-time Special Deputy, who would be hired exclusively to serve all types of warrants. The Judge explained that an incredibly high number of warrants were being issued for people failing to show up to pay fines and court costs. When the Special Deputy warrant officer would serve a warrant and bring the person in, cash bond would be demanded to cover the warrant before the individual could be released from jail. So on that hypothetical DUI case where fines and court costs would be $625, the defaulter would have to provide $625 in cash, $200 of which would go back to NASA to be redistributed as future grants (which in turn would help pay the warrant officer's salary). The county council was shown that this position would, most of the time, pay for itself. Warrants would be served for every offense so that unpaid fines and court costs would be collected but enough countermeasure fees would, hypothetically, also be collected to more than justify the existence of this position. Not only would this become a self-perpetuating funding source, but offenders would now be forced to comply with court-ordered sanctions. Hopefully, enforcing compliance by offenders would discourage recidivism, which would benefit society. NASA approved the required funds, which have been supplemented by the Sheriff's Department, as outlined in the Program Components section.
To date, neither the problem with outstanding warrants nor the warrant officer position have been publicized. It is doubtful that the general public is aware of either the problem or the solution. Those involved with this program believe the general public would be supportive of the duties of a warrant officer, with some possible exceptions for more minor offenses such as traffic infractions and possibly writing bad checks.
The warrant officer believes that the majority of individuals who have warrants outstanding are aware of the fact that they have not complied with court orders. It was suggested that notices be sent out to habitual defaulters, but the warrant officer disagreed and believes those individuals would run and hide, or even worse, they could become a danger to the warrant officer if they have time to prepare to resist arrest. Another suggestion was made to publicize names of defaulters in local newspapers. One or both of these suggestions may be used at some point for older warrants which have never been served, and which the warrant officer would not attempt to serve due to the backlog. By publicizing the names of those individuals with older outstanding warrants, some of these offenders may be pressured by families, friends or employers to turn themselves in and deal with the consequences of their inactions.
The personality type and law enforcement experience of the warrant officer were described as essential to the success of this position. In Hancock County, the warrant officer routinely serves warrants alone without backup from other officers, although he is in radio contact and can call for assistance when required. However, the warrant officer reports that in four years of serving over 1,000 warrants, only four individuals have fled and only two or three others have posed problems that required calling in backup officers. It is the belief of the Superior Court Judge in the County that the level of success in serving warrants and the lack of problems is largely due to the professionalism of the individual serving the warrants. The warrant officer reports that a routine, unemotional yet professional manner is required at all times, along with following the old adage, Treat others as you would want to be treated.
The warrant officer reports he is most likely to locate defaulters at home during early evening hours. So he works part-time Monday through Thursday evenings in six hour shifts, but he believes Sunday evening would also be a good time to locate individuals at their residences. He reports that he is able to keep up with the current level of new warrants issued (discussed under the Data Compilation section below) and occasionally has time to work on the backlog of old warrants.
The Judge orders the warrant and the court clerk issues and forwards the warrant to the Sheriff's Department. Before the warrant officer was hired, the warrants were filed in a drawer and were not served unless the offender had committed a felony, or a deputy was assigned to a warrant detail, or the individual was picked up during another encounter with a LEA (law enforcement agency) which had checked with NCIC. As pointed out earlier, warrant details were very infrequent due to budgetary and personnel limitations and not all LEA officers routinely checked NCIC for outstanding warrants.
To enable the warrant officer to work effectively, it has required a joint operation involving the courts, the probation department, and the Sheriff's Department. Although the court provides information on the warrant and the probation department often provides addresses for people who have failed drug screens, frequently the personal information and addresses prove incorrect. Therefore, it has been proven that to save time, the warrant officer needs to have Sheriff Department dispatchers check the names and addresses with the DMV. Needless to say, this is time consuming and takes time from the dispatchers' other duties, so the Sheriff must be supportive of the warrant officer's efforts.
Four years ago, when the warrant officer was hired in Hancock County, there were over 1,000 outstanding warrants. These included infractions for people who had not paid traffic tickets. A decision was made that it was not cost effective for these types of warrants to be served. In fact, the Judge no longer issues warrants for unpaid fines for traffic infractions. (Instead he orders driver license suspensions, and if these individuals are caught driving on a suspended license, the Judge may send them to jail.) Another determination was made that the new warrant officer should begin with the latest warrants and prioritize those, attempting to locate the most serious offenders first and would only look at the old warrants when there were no new pressing cases.
The warrant officer has been instructed to prioritize cases so that his first priorities are absconders in illegal drug cases and those involving domestic abuse. However, DUI offenders are also given a high priority. Typically, he will make three attempts to serve a warrant, unless the original offense was serious or he knows the person is avoiding him. But if he cannot get a lead on a good address or other pertinent information, he will not spend valuable time trying to uncover new leads as to the person's whereabouts.
It is also essential for the warrant officer to follow procedures and protocol when notifying other LEAs that warrants are to be served in their jurisdictions. It was stressed that proper notification of all LEAs is essential in maintaining good working relationships. The warrant officer from Hancock County reports that when serving warrants outside of Hancock County, other LEAs have sometimes sent officers along or at least have made sure officers are in close proximity when felony warrants are being served in case backup is required. (Note: The warrant officer is a Special Deputy which gives him the legal authority as a law enforcement officer to serve warrants anywhere within the state of Indiana.) Most times he does not have backup. In smaller towns, he usually takes the town marshal as a courtesy and for assistance. The ability of the warrant officer to work with all types of LEAs is essential and helps to assure their cooperation when assistance is requested.
While the warrant officer's salary was arranged by a NASA grant, there were other needs. At first, the warrant officer was dependent upon the availability of a vehicle from the Sheriff's Department. Eventually, a vehicle was purchased for the position. The vehicle is an unmarked car equipped by the Sheriff's Department with radios, both mounted in the vehicle and a hand-held portable device. The Sheriff's Department also buys the gas and provides the vehicle insurance. The warrant officer wears the full uniform of a Sheriff's deputy including a bullet-proof vest and he carries a sidearm, all of which are provided by the Sheriff's Department. The Judge has supplied a cell phone.
As a part of the NASA grant, the warrant officer tracks the number of hours worked and the number of warrants served. He reported that the bulk of the warrants are issued from Hancock Superior Court II at the rate of 30-60 per month. The other two courts in Hancock County also issue warrants which are served by the warrant officer, but these two courts issue relatively few warrants. In 1999, the warrant officer worked a total of 501 hours and a total of 334 people were incarcerated for some type of warrant service. The breakdown by offense is as follows:
Table IN-1: Warrants Served in Hancock County in 1999
|Type of Offense||Number of Warrants Served|
|Possession of Marijuana||
|Minor Possession of Alcohol||
|Possession of a controlled substance||
*usually for alcohol/drug use violations
If the courts elected to collect all bond money set, the amount in 1999 for Hancock County would have totaled $242,580. However, sometimes the courts reduce fees. At one point, it was suggested that an additional fee for the warrant service be assessed against the defaulter, but this has not been implemented in Hancock County. First, it has not been necessary to assess additional fees to help fund the warrant officer position. There has been support from other areas when supplemental funds have been needed. And, secondly, the Judge did not believe there was any statutory justification available which would allow him to add the additional monetary penalties. Thus, if an appeal was made, it was highly likely that the Judge's decision to assess those penalties would be reversed.
The warrant officer position has been well received by the judicial and law enforcement agencies in and surrounding Hancock County. In fact, on one occasion when there was not enough money in the NASA fund to cover all of the warrant officer's salary, the prosecutor's office paid the difference and, another time, the county council allotted funds. Although the general public may not be aware of the position, defaulters have been painfully made aware that non-compliance with court orders in Hancock County is not tolerated. Law enforcement agencies, probation personnel, prosecutors and jurists can all note and take satisfaction from the fact that offenders can no longer ignore sanctions with impudence.
The Judge reported that he is able to place DUI offenders on probation because the probation officers and the warrant officer will insure that those offenders comply. They (the offenders) have to go to their classes, they have to get treatment and they have to stay drug and alcohol free. If they test positive for alcohol or drugs, a warrant is issued and the warrant officer goes out immediately and picks up the person. Very often I issue a warrant one day, the warrant officer picks them up the next day and they are back in court. It lets people know this is not a game, that the Judge is serious, and it helps the prosecutor to understand the sentences - it's not just probation on paper - it's a real sentence. Another key to success is that cash only is accepted for bond in DUI cases involving non-compliance, which helps reimburse the warrant service.
Those involved with this program encourage other communities to establish warrant officer positions. This is a practical solution that with just a little bit of seed money will grow to become self-sufficient. While the emphasis of this study is on outstanding warrants related to impaired driving offenses, we were made aware that a warrant officer who is directed to serve all types of warrants will gain more wide-spread support from judicial agencies, LEAs, grassroots organizations (e.g., groups for victims' rights), and communities. More wide-spread support typically means more wide-spread funding sources or sharing of program costs. It is possible that sources for initial funding might be found in local community funds, as part of a local prosecutor's budget or by several courts and/or law enforcement agencies sharing the costs. It may also be possible to assess other additional monetary penalties to help defray costs for a warrant officer program, especially if legislators are willing to pass a bill supporting this measure. Diplomacy and cooperation between LEAs and the courts are necessary for warrant officers to be able to fulfill their task of locating those who have not fulfilled their court obligations. Together in Hancock County, Indiana, the Superior Court Judge and the Special Deputy serving as the warrant officer, have proven to the county commissioners that this position pays for itself through serving warrants. Enough monies were collected, which would otherwise have been lost, to pay fines, court costs and the warrant officer's salary. And on several occasions when the countermeasure fees were not enough to cover costs, there was enough support for the program that additional funds were located.
The Judge believes that a precedent should be set to serve all warrants for every offense without boundary restrictions. Serving warrants should not be offense specific or bound by geographic convenience, because when all offenders are held accountable for their legal obligations, they are taught social responsibility and society, as a whole, benefits.
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