Pubdate: Wed, 23 June 1999
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Page: A1 - Front Page
Copyright: 1999 San Francisco Chronicle
Author: Kenneth Howe, Erin Hallissy, Chronicle Staff Writers
Note: Part two of the two part series, When Justice Goes Unserved, follows:


Approach To Serving Warrants Has Failed, Calls For Reform Go Unheeded

It did not take long for San Diego Judge Larry Stirling to learn that
California's approach to serving warrants was a system badly in need of
reform. One of his first cases as a Municipal Court judge in 1989 was a
drunken driver who failed to show up for his arraignment.

"He was a three-time offender blowing off the court," Stirling recalled. "I
said, 'Let's get this guy.' And I ordered a bench warrant."

Stirling said the bailiff just laughed at him. He told the judge that no
one was going to serve that warrant and take the scofflaw into custody,
because the county had too many outstanding warrants already.

But Stirling -- a former infantry captain -- was used to getting things
done, so he marched down to the county marshal's office. There, however, he
was stunned to learn that the bailiff was right. San Diego had 500,000
unserved warrants -- or "one for every three or four people in the county."

What Stirling discovered in San Diego more than 10 years ago is true
throughout the state today. California's laissez-faire approach to serving
warrants has led to an astonishing backlog of more than 2.5 million
outstanding warrants. And no one is serving them, except in the most
violent cases. "It's a cataclysmic breakdown of the law enforcement
system," Stirling said.

By default, the state has fallen back on what critics call a dangerous and
ineffective "chance encounter" strategy for serving warrants.

It's a high-risk but low-percentage gambit that depends on suspects with
outstanding warrants eventually being stopped again. During those "chance
encounters," unserved warrants will theoretically surface in background
checks, and the officers can then take the suspects into custody.

But critics like Stirling contend the approach is seriously flawed because:

- -- It endangers the public by allowing wanted suspects to remain at large
indefinitely, free to terrorize their old neighborhoods, menace the state's
highways or simply disappear.

- -- In many cases, the chance encounter never occurs at all. In a recent
random sampling of the 12,000 unserved felony warrants in San Francisco
County, The Chronicle found that roughly half the warrants were 3 or more
years old. Many had been issued in the 1970s and 1980s.

- -- It relies on an antiquated computer tracking system that can fail to
reveal whether a person has outstanding warrants. Without such information,
officers cannot take the suspects into custody, even if the chance
encounter does occur.

"There is no question that if the Department of Justice were able to
upgrade their Wanted Persons System, it would improve things for everyone,"
said the Department of Correction's Rick Rimmer, who heads the agency's
Parolee at Large unit.

The liabilities of the "chance encounter" approach -- and the state's
Wanted Persons System

- -- are no secret to the state's top law enforcement official.

"The efficacy of the law enforcement system depends on swift and certain
punishment," said California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. "There is no
justice in slow justice."

But in Sacramento, reforming the state's warrants system has been a low
priority, despite the impassioned outcries of frustrated judges,
prosecutors and law officers.

"Somebody has to step up and be responsible and get everyone else on
board," said Tom Hunt, three-time president of the California Criminal
Justice Warrant Services Association, a statewide body of warrant officers.

"If you are going to reform the system, it has to be done statewide."

- -- -- --

For a peace officer, a chance encounter with a suspect wanted on
outstanding warrants is one of the riskiest aspects of a job already
suffused with danger.

And critics charge that by relying on those chance encounters to serve
warrants, the state is needlessly placing peace officers in harm's way.

"One of the most dangerous routine duties is making traffic stops of people
who have outstanding warrants where the cops don't know it," said David
Kennedy, criminal justice researcher at Harvard University.

"Those guys (suspects) don't know the cop doesn't know about the warrants.
They're worried about going inside (to prison). The driver may be willing
to put him (the officer) down."

That is what happened in 1990 to California Highway Patrol officer Gene
Mulata, when he pulled over a speeding red Chevy pickup along Cummings
Skyway near Crockett in Contra Costa County.

Mulata, an eight-year veteran at the time, walked up to the pickup and
asked the driver for his license and registration.

"I was immediately suspicious because he had no identification or
registration, and he was being very evasive about his own identity," Mulata

The driver gave Mulata a name, but as the officer walked back to his patrol
car, he was certain the name was fictitious.

Mulata did not have a mobile data terminal, so he called dispatch to check
the pickup's license plate. As the officer stood beside his car, talking to
dispatch on the radio, the driver climbed out of the pickup, pulled a
.44-caliber handgun and fired twice into Mulata's chest.

As Mulata lay on the ground, the driver stepped closer and fired once more
into the officer's back.

Mulata managed to roll over and fire at the fleeing driver, the bullets
smacking into the pickup's door, but the driver and his accomplice escaped.

"The first couple of shots weren't too bad," said Mulata, who was wearing a
flak vest.

But the final bullet caused a chunk of the Kevlar vest to penetrate his
body, badly injuring his back.

Two days later, authorities tracked down the driver -- a convicted felon
named Jeffrey Rendall. He had a long record that included arrests for an
assault on an officer, burglary and auto theft.

At the time of the shooting, Rendall was wanted for violating his parole --
but the warrant had never been served.

- -- -- --

Frequently, officers fail to run routine background checks that might
disclose outstanding warrants.

Many peace officers lack mobile data terminals with access to the Wanted
Persons System. The California Highway Patrol, for example, has some 2,500
vehicles, but only 20 to 25 percent are equipped with such terminals.

That forces most officers to run the license number and ID through a
dispatcher. But dispatchers may have to handle as many as 30 cars at a
time, leaving them little time to run computer searches for every officer's

"We don't run someone through the Wanted Persons System unless there is a
specific request by the officer in the field," said the CHP's Jennie
Garcia, who for 12 years was a dispatcher at the Golden Gate Communications
Center in Vallejo.

CHP officers do not even contact dispatchers on every stop, and they
request warrant information only 1 out of 5 times when they do call in,
Garcia said.

"We do traffic. That's our main thrust," she said.

- -- -- --

Even if law officers had the time and equipment to run background checks
during every chance encounter, there is no guarantee that the background
checks would disclose all outstanding warrants.

"There's not a cop who's been around more than a year that hasn't run
across the situation where somebody comes back clear and yet doing a little
more digging, you find out the person really is wanted," said Steve Ferdin,
a San Jose policeman.

"It's really much more common than you might realize," he said.

Background checks are run through a statewide computer network called the
California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System.

This system links police, sheriff's departments, highway patrol and other
law enforcement officers throughout California to more than a dozen state
and national databases that contain information about criminals, firearms,
vehicle licenses, stolen property and other topics.

The critical database is the Wanted Persons System, which currently
contains the names of approximately 690,000 people who are wanted on
outstanding warrants.

But hundreds of thousands of outstanding warrants have never even been
submitted to the system. In 1993, for example, a spot check of the system
found that 30,000 felony warrants had never been entered, according to
department officials.

At the same time, much of the Wanted Persons System's computer equipment is
decades old.

"It's antiquated, and it isn't online," said Hunt. "The problem with the
state's computer system is that it just doesn't work effectively."

Moreover, the system has no central authority or uniform reporting
standards. Although the system is administered by the Department of
Justice, department officials make it clear that they do not determine what
individuals and warrants are entered on the system.

"What gets put in is up to the local agencies," said George Hisamoto, the
Department of Justice administrator for the Wanted Persons System.

And that often varies from county to county.

In the Bay Area, for example, Marin County enters individuals wanted on all
outstanding felony and misdemeanor warrants into the Wanted Persons System.
San Francisco County, on the other hand, lists suspects wanted on felony
warrants and some serious misdemeanors. Contra Costa County enters
individuals wanted on all felonies and misdemeanors with bail set higher
than $10,000.

The criteria for entering a warrant often have nothing directly to do with
the nature of the crime. A warrant is entered only if the local law
enforcement agency is willing to pay the costs of transporting the suspect
from where he or she is taken into custody back to the jurisdiction where
the warrant was issued.

In many cases, local law enforcement agencies simply are not willing to pay
for suspects to be returned.

"Happens all the time," said Ken Hundley, President of Tri-County
Extraditions in Banning (Riverside County), one of the state's biggest
transporting agencies.

Hundley's company transports suspects for state and local agencies -- and
it is not cheap. The cost for a 945-mile trip from Crescent City (Del Norte
County) to Blythe (Riverside County), for example, is about $500.

"A county's not going to pay that for a misdemeanor charge," Hundley said.
"And the criminal knows it. They know which crimes they'll be brought back
on and which ones they won't."

- -- -- --

In 1966, Bay Area counties banded together and formed a regional database
to track outstanding warrants.

Law enforcement agencies in Alameda, San Francisco, Contra Costa, San
Mateo, Santa Clara and Marin counties formed the Police Information
Network. Over the years, Solano and San Joaquin counties also joined. For
the first time, an officer in the field could radio a dispatcher to find
out if a suspect was wanted in another county.

But the information contained in the network was limited and slow to
access. In 1995, the network was effectively supplanted by the Automated
Warrants System, run by the Alameda County Sheriff's Department.

The Automated Warrants System is a sophisticated and interactive database
for tracking outstanding warrants, and is capable of churning out reports
on specific towns by type and age of warrant.

Unfortunately, not all Bay Area counties can afford to participate in the

"You know what it's about. It's about money," said Marcie Colhour, senior
deputy in San Francisco County's warrants unit.

The Automated Warrants System can cost a county more than $60,000 a year to
maintain. Now only Alameda, San Francisco,

San Mateo and Santa Clara counties participate, along with the city of

And that is the single-largest problem with that automated system: In many
cases, all suspects wanted for minor offenses have to do is cross a county
line -- and suddenly any officer who encounters the suspects has almost no
way of knowing if they are wanted for outstanding warrants.

"I don't want to say they disappear, but the chances of an officer getting
a hit on the record would be much less," said former Automated Warrants
System Director Margaret Duncan.

- -- -- --

In the early 1980s, Judge Sam Mesnick of the Bay Municipal Court in
Richmond was growing frustrated by the number of people skipping scheduled
appearances in his courtroom.

Most were wanted for low-level crimes, such as failing to pay a speeding
ticket, or not finishing their community service or drug rehabilitation. In
each case, he issued a bench warrant, along with a fine. But no one was
serving the warrants -- and the fines were not being collected.

So Mesnick wrote the law that effectively decriminalizes warrants in minor
offenses by allowing judges to impose $250 civil assessments for failure to
appear -- in addition to the original fines.

If both the civil assessment and the fine are paid, the case is closed and
no court appearance is necessary. But suspects who fail to pay the
assessment and the fine are turned over to collection agencies, rather than
the police.

"It's better to (levy) the civil penalty than to put the burden on the
police" to arrest scofflaws, said Mesnick, who is now retired.

The law was passed by the state Legislature in 1985, and the results have
been impressive.

In 1985, Contra Costa County had 150,000 outstanding warrants. Today the
county has fewer than 50,000. And last year, the law generated $1.1 million
for county coffers.

The results have been even more dramatic in San Diego County during the
past five years. The number of outstanding warrants has plummeted. Last
year, the county collected $7.5 million in civil fines.

"You create more money, you treat people humanely, you create
accountability," said Stirling, who persuaded the county to routinely
invoke Mesnick's law. "This is a very solvable problem. You create the
revenues to finance law enforcement and incentives for law enforcement to
do the job."

The problem is that other than in Contra Costa and San Diego counties, few
judges use the law, often because they don't know it exists.

Lawmakers in other states have also launched reform measures to reduce
backlogs of warrants.

In Texas, for example, the Department of Motor Vehicles now runs a warrants
check on everyone who renews a driver's license.

"We arrest two to five people on warrants on any given day right at the
counter," said Tela Mang, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public

Utah is creating a new system that will track all warrants.

"Too often the warrant is just a hollow threat," said Captain Stu Smith of
Utah's Bureau of Criminal Identification. "But law enforcement depends on
warrants. It is the only tool the system has to get that person in front of
a judge."

And Massachusetts is completing a major reform of its tracking system.

But in California, reform attempts have been scattershot and have received
little support.

Stirling has written new legislation that would increase fines on felony
warrants to $1,000 and $500 for a misdemeanor. Half of the money collected
under Stirling's proposed legislation would go to the police agency that
serves the warrant. The other half would go to the state to finance a state
marshal's office.

But he has been unable to get his state senator to carry the bill. He
blames the senator's reluctance on lobbying by law enforcement agencies
that think that it would amount to bounty hunting.

"What is so bad about bounty hunting if it's done by a professional police
officer?" Stirling asks. "State law tells people to serve these warrants,
and they don't do it. They ought to get into the game. It's what they're
paid to do."

Stirling is not alone in his frustration.

"It's the foundation for the whole (criminal justice) system," said
Mesnick. "And it's falling apart."

- ------------------------------------------------------------------


From Massachusetts to San Diego, police, judges and legislators have
explored a variety of methods to reduce the number of outstanding warrants.
Some are just ideas, others have been successfully tried in the field.


- -- Create a statewide computer database that contains all misdemeanor and
felony warrants.

- -- Program statewide database to identify individuals wanted for serious
offenses and multiple warrants.

- -- Prevent drivers from receiving or renewing their driver's licenses if
they have outstanding warrants.

- -- Suspend professional licenses of people with outstanding warrants.

- -- Cut off public benefits -- welfare, tax refunds, unemployment benefits

- --to people with outstanding warrants.


- -- Send warning notices to individuals with outstanding bench warrants,
notifying them of sanctions for failing to show up in court or not paying a

- -- Levy civil assessments in addition to fines for minor offenses and then
turn the cases over to collection agencies.

- -- Dispense quicker justice through night courts, drug courts,
detoxification programs, work details and fines -- rather than allowing
suspects to slip away based on a promise to return to court at a later date.

- -- Increase bail amounts to improve likelihood that suspect will show for
court appearances.


- -- Increase staffs of warrant details and fugitive recovery squads.

- -- Distribute warrants to beat officers to serve as part of their regular

- -- Assign police reservists to serve warrants for nonviolent offenses and
interns to investigate accuracy of addresses.

- -- Install mobile terminals in all California Highway Patrol and police cars.


- -- Post Internet Web sites that identify all individuals wanted on
outstanding warrants.

- -- Set up an anonymous reward hotline to allow citizens to provide
information about individuals with outstanding warrants.

- -- Establish a state-run "con bus" system to transport wanted suspects from
site of their arrests to counties where warrants were issued.

Chronicle reporting by Kenneth Howe

Chronicle Graphic

- ------------------------------------------------------------------


California has a backlog of more than 2.5 million outstanding warrants, and
law enforcement agencies have all but abandoned the job of serving them.
Instead the state has fallen back on what critics call the "chance
encounter" approach, a risky strategy that allows suspects to remain at
large. Here is how the approach is supposed to work and where it breaks apart:

- ------------------------------------------------------------------


Warrants are issued when individuals fail to appear for court dates,
violate the conditions of their parole or probation, or commit other
offenses. But law enforcement agencies serve warrants for only the most
serious crimes.


The failure to serve warrants allows suspects to remain free indefinitely
- -- and potentially commit new crimes, or leave the county or even the state.

- ------------------------------------------------------------------


The state gambles that suspects with outstanding warrants will come into
subsequent contact with authorities -- and that those authorities will run
the suspect's name through the state's Wanted Persons System (WPS) or the
Automated Warrants System \(AWS\) in the Bay Area, discover any outstanding
warrants and then make the arrest.

Police must rely on accurate information from suspects when checking


Many officers in the field do not have mobile data terminals to access
computer networks. Instead they must rely on busy dispatchers. Moreover,
such chance encounters with wanted suspects could be highly dangerous for
law officers.

- ------------------------------------------------------------------


All Bay Area counties use the Wanted Persons System. Four years ago, the
Automated Warrants System was formed to track felony and misdemeanor
warrants in the Bay Area. But today, only four of the Bay Area's nine
counties use this system.

San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara: Enter felonies on the
Wanted Persons System; the four counties (and city of Benicia) also
participate in the Automated Warrants System. The database is operated by
the Alameda County Sheriff's Department.

Contra Costa County: Enters all felonies and serious misdemeanors on the
Wanted Persons System; operates its own countywide database called the
Justice Automated Warrants System.

Marin County: Enters all warrants, felony and misdemeanors, on the Wanted
Persons System.

Sonoma County: Enters felonies and some misdemeanors in the Automated
Warrants System. It has all warrants on its own central computer
repository, but it can be accessed only by dispatchers.

Napa County: Enters felonies and some misdemeanors on the Wanted Persons
System, but has no local warrant computer system. Warrants are filed by hand.

Solano County: Enters all warrants on the Wanted Persons System.


Because there is no consistent system, suspects can virtually disappear,
simply by crossing county lines

- ------------------------------------------------------------------


The state Department of Justice maintains the California Law Enforcement
Telecommunications System, a computer switching network that receives
messages from law enforcement terminals and provides access to a dozen
state and federal databases.


A warrant search begins when a name and birthdate are entered into a
computer terminal. Some police officers have direct access through mobil
terminals in their cars. Others must rely on dispatchers. In a warrant
search, the CLETS network acts as a traffic cop and connects users via
teletype to the Wanted Persons database. Information is available 24 hours
a day

Law enforcement officials can get information about criminals, firearms,
vehicle licenses and stolen property.

Modern databases are "relational," meaning researchers can sort information
easily by specific topics. Wanted Persons System is a "hierarchical"
database, much like a phone book. Information can be accessed by search
commands, but not sorted. For example, an officer can look up a suspect and
discover he has 10 outstanding warrants, but he cannot identify suspects
with 10 or more outstanding warrants.

- ------------------------------------------------------------------


Wanted Persons System, founded in 1971, is a computer database that
contains the names of 680,000 suspects wanted on outstanding warrants for
felonies and serious misdemeanors in California.


Hundreds of thousands of warrants have never been entered on the Wanted
Persons System. The system has no central authority or reporting standards
to determine what warrants are entered, leaving that decision to local
police and sheriff's departments. Computer equipment is decades old.

- ------------------------------------------------------------------

Sources: California Department of Justice, Chronicle research 
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