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2 - OVERVIEW OF THE PROJECT

PROSPECTIVE SITES , PROGRAMS DEALING WITH OUTSTANDING WARRANTS

This chapter provides an overview of the three project components: focus groups, site study and current programs dealing with outstanding warrants. Findings are also presented, although more detailed findings specific to each project site are described in Chapter 3.

FOCUS GROUPS

Two focus group sessions were conducted in Madison, Wisconsin at a regional impaired driving conference. The nineteen focus group attendees included a city attorney, a program administrator, two representatives from GHSR (Governor's Highway Safety Representatives) offices, judges, and representatives from law enforcement agencies. The participants came from Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. They reported that within their communities or jurisdictions, the majority of DWI offenders do make the initial court appearance, especially first-time offenders. It appeared that most of the problems occur at a later court appearance and/or when the person does not fulfill his or her obligation as ordered by the court (e.g., payment of fines, completion of treatment for alcohol abuse or addiction).

Consistent with preliminary project findings, participants confirmed that there are varying degrees of information available on the number of DWI defaulters from one area to another. There were basically four situations experienced by the focus group attendees:

One attendee believes the non-resident violator compact, an interstate driver records exchange agreement, has cleared up some warrants. However, there is still the issue of boundaries and the lack of obligation to return someone to another state, or even outside a specified radius within the same state, unless a felony has been committed. Another attendee suggested reporting non-payment of fines to credit agencies.

Important strategies offered by focus group participants to deal with the problem of absconders or defaulters and outstanding warrants were as follows.

It was apparent that among the majority of focus group participants, this discussion of outstanding warrants was a new topic and one which had not been addressed, at least not completely, in their own communities. Based on our focus group invitation, several participants had contacted administrators of databases in their jurisdictions and were surprised to learn they could not easily obtain numbers of outstanding warrants for DWI offenses, and in some cases learned it would not be possible to extract that information from existing systems.

While the focus groups helped our staff explore existing data systems and apprehension policies, we unfortunately learned that the question of if and/or how large a problem outstanding DWI warrants constitute remains relatively unknown in many areas.

PROSPECTIVE SITES

One project goal was to recruit participating sites from as many areas of the country as possible. In an attempt to reach this goal, project staff contacted public safety representatives in all fifty states and Puerto Rico during the course of this project. The process was begun by contacting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Regional offices and all of the GHSR (Governor's Highway Safety Representatives) offices and providing them with a project summary. Their assistance in identifying prospective sites was requested. Contacts in law enforcement agencies, court systems, and various data system managers and administrators from prior research projects were also queried and asked to identify appropriate sites and/or contacts. Periodic searches were conducted on the Internet in attempts to locate prospective sites and programs. Finally, we approached national organizations such as the National Center for State Courts and MADD National Headquarters to ask if they were aware of any innovative programs across the country dealing with outstanding warrants.

It was apparent that the topic of outstanding warrants is fairly new to the majority of communities which were contacted. Although there were exceptions, project staff encountered many obstacles. Due to the sensitivity of the subject, it was often difficult to obtain access to pertinent data. These concerns included confidentiality issues, technical problems with querying data systems, policies not allowing data systems personnel to handle requests outside their agency or state, and concerns over bad publicity if project staff found that outstanding warrants were a problem in a community. Understandably, communities did not want to reveal publicly the extent to which outstanding DWI warrants may have been a problem, although these communities usually claimed not to know if a problem even existed.

We were able with persistence and time to overcome many of these concerns in some areas, but most communities and agencies contacted were unwilling or unable to participate in the project. As of the writing of this report, project staff were still waiting for promised data from many locations which initially agreed to participate.

Project staff found the majority of communities are keeping some form of records. However, many of the larger, formal DWI tracking systems and other court systems begin with the case disposition; therefore, cases which have not reached disposition are not entered into the system. This would include all cases where the person has failed to make a court-ordered appearance at any point along the adjudication process. We also learned, during the course of this project, that actual warrants are not always issued for a non-appearance.

Table 1 displays the project sites by state, community and the type(s) of data provided by each site. Details of each project site are reported in Chapter 3. Basically, the data content varied widely. In some instances, the reasons for the issuance of the warrants could not be determined.

State Community Category of Data Received
California Merced County Arrest, Warrant
Colorado El Paso County Arrest
Indiana Hancock County Arrest, Warrant
Massachusetts Statewide Warrant
Massachusetts Peabody Warrant
Massachusetts Lynnfield Warrant
Nebraska Douglas County Arrest, Warrant
Nebraska Lancaster County Warrant
New York Chemung County Arrest, Warrant
Ohio Pickaway County Warrant
Oregon Deschutes County Arrest, Warrant
Puerto Rico Island-wide Arrest, Disposition
Texas Austin Arrest
Utah Salt Lake City Arrest, Disposition, Warrant
Utah Salt Lake County Arrest, Disposition, Warrant
Utah Combined Communities Arrest, Disposition, Warrant
Vermont Statewide Arrest, Disposition, Warrant
Vermont Chittenden County Warrant
Washington Pierce County Arrest, Warrant

PROGRAMS DEALING WITH OUTSTANDING WARRANTS

During efforts to locate sites which could provide data, individuals contacted by project staff were also asked about innovative ideas for dealing with outstanding DWI warrants. This was an attempt to identify any programs designed to deal with individuals who failed to appear during the adjudication process and/or failed to complete court-ordered sanctions. In the vast majority of communities, active methods for dealing with outstanding warrants meant some version of a warrant squad staffed by LEAs (law enforcement agencies). These squads and several other methods of deterring FTA behavior are discussed below. Various programs are detailed under the corresponding site in the next chapter and in the appendices.

Occasionally law enforcement agencies had a special warrants squad but, as stated earlier in this report under the section on focus groups, these squads often must place DWI offenses lower on their list of priorities than other types of offenses such as domestic violence. However there were exceptions, such as in New York State, where each county has a “STOP DWI” program. These are programs, enacted by the New York State legislature in 1981, which are dedicated to locating and stopping impaired drivers. We highlighted one of these programs, Chemung County, New York in Appendix A. As a routine part of this program, outstanding warrants for DWI offenses are sometimes served by law enforcement officers working exclusively on Chemung County's STOP DWI program. When the number of outstanding warrants becomes too great for these officers to handle in addition to their other program-related duties, specific task forces are assembled consisting of officers from the various LEAs operating within Chemung County who are paid overtime with STOP DWI funds.

The community of Pierce County, Washington has a special task force comprised of various LEA members which routinely searches for impaired drivers. On one occasion, those task force resources were used exclusively to search for DWI offenders with outstanding warrants. This special task force is detailed in Appendix B.

Hancock County, Indiana was identified as an example of how the problem of outstanding warrants could be solved by hiring one part-time, dedicated warrants officer. This is a solution which could be replicated in smaller communities. Hancock County's program is featured in Appendix C.

The Deschutes County Sheriff's Office in Oregon maintains a current database of warrants available to all officers who routinely check the database when making traffic stops and arrests, and also try to locate individuals with warrants in between service calls.

In addition to the programs mentioned above which rely heavily on LEA involvement, several sites have reported that names of persons with outstanding warrants for DWI offenses are printed in local newspapers and/or on a website. One location in Colorado said local volunteers attempt to telephone defaulters. Further details are provided in the next chapter.

In some areas, individuals who fail to appear in court are sent a letter notifying them that if they do not contact the court within a certain number of days, the person's driver's license is suspended. There is disagreement among persons we talked with over whether this method of dealing with outstanding warrants is effective.

Media participation was cited as a valuable resource for publicizing both active and passive methods of locating defaulters. The various media channels are often asked to report activity by warrant squads and most often have been very cooperative and thorough in the level of coverage provided. While many newspapers and an increasing number of websites publish names of defaulters and sometimes offenses along with other pertinent information, we were also told about several television stations who now routinely cover “wanted” persons during regular segments of their local news programs. Reportedly, these programs are very popular with the public. To our knowledge, no data exists to examine the effectiveness of these methods.

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