Hundreds of thousands face
warrants for minor offenses
ante Williams pounded on the hood of his white 2008 Chevy Malibu, just above the passenger-side headlight. He hit it a second time, and the light flickered to life.
“All this mess in my life, including throwing me in jail, over this,” said Williams, shaking his head in disbelief.
Columbus police stopped Williams, 42, in September for that failing headlight. They then discovered Williams had arrest warrants for failing to appear in court in 2003 and 2004 for four traffic offenses, the worst of which was an improper right turn. He said he forgot about those tickets and wasn’t aware that warrants had been issued.
Williams, of the South Side, spent three days in jail over the 14-year-old traffic offenses, sitting among people charged with domestic violence, assault and other more-serious crimes. While he was in jail, the food truck he spent his life savings to start wasn’t on the road making money. Adding to the misery, someone stole a generator he used to power the truck’s kitchen. And the city paid a price, too: His three nights in jail cost Columbus $246.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans such as Williams are a traffic stop away from being jailed for offenses as minor as not paying a traffic ticket, not licensing their dog or jaywalking, an examination of arrest warrants across the nation shows.
In Columbus, the warrants are thickest in the poorest neighborhoods — including Linden, Franklinton and on the Hilltop — and disproportionately affect minorities. For people too poor to pay a ticket in the first place, an arrest and even a short jail stay can mean lost wages, a lost job, family turmoil and, in many places, cascading fines and fees.
In warrant data supplied by 27 states, and reports provided by others, including New Jersey, The Dispatch identified well over 1.2 million open arrest warrants for minor offenses. And there likely are many more, because some states did not include in their data the records of bench warrants issued by judges.
The Dispatch and GateHouse Media contacted officials in all 50 states but did not receive arrest-warrant data from the other 23 because they don’t collect centralized warrant data or said it wasn't public information.
In Cincinnati, warrants seek people accused of spitting on the sidewalk. In Michigan, where the state police's database holds an open warrant for every 10 state residents, there are 132,696 warrants for “civil infraction” or “traffic offense.”
Locally, more than 19,000 open arrest warrants in Franklin County listed a primary charge of a minor misdemeanor, such as speeding, not wearing a seat belt or having a loud muffler. That’s about one-third of the open warrants in Franklin County Municipal Court. Place them on a map, and they cluster in a pattern that mirrors areas with the city's highest poverty rates.
Issuing arrest warrants and jailing people for minor infractions is a practice that troubles advocates of justice-system reform and many who work in the system.
“It’s a very serious problem, and it’s happening more or less in every state in the country, every county and every city,” said Matt Menendez, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy and law institute at New York University’s School of Law. “If this were impacting white, middle-class suburbs, you would see quicker results and reforms. The way warrants are issued in these cases has little or nothing to do with the risks they may pose.”
These minor warrants affect people across the country:
•In Ferguson, Missouri, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the municipal court violated people’s rights by routinely issuing arrest warrants for missed court appearances and nonpayment of fines in minor cases. Ferguson’s population is about 21,000. In a single year, investigators said, the court issued one warrant for roughly every two residents.
“In 2013 alone, the court issued over 9,000 warrants on cases stemming in large part from minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations,” DOJ investigators wrote in their report. “Jail time would be considered far too harsh a penalty for the great majority of these code violations.”
•The New Jersey Supreme Court has assigned a panel to review nearly 800,000 municipal-court bench warrants issued before 2003 for minor infractions, including parking and traffic tickets, to determine whether they should be dismissed. Overall, there are about 2.5 million open municipal-court bench warrants in the state. Supreme Court officials estimate that 80 percent, or about 2 million, of those warrants are for minor offenses. New Jersey was not among the states that provided data to The Dispatch.
•In Kentucky, out of about 285,000 open arrest warrants, nearly 103,000 have a primary charge that is listed as a “violation,” such as a traffic ticket, that isn’t even serious enough to call a misdemeanor. Records show judges declared defendants fugitives in almost 25,000 cases in which the primary violation was a first or second offense of public drunkenness.
•In South Carolina, the American Civil Liberties Union sued two cities for arresting defendants on warrants for misdemeanor crimes and, if they could not pay the fines, jailing them without offering the help of a public defender. The lawsuit says one of those defendants spent 38 days in jail, in deteriorating health, because he was unable to pay traffic fines.
For Williams, jailed in Columbus on 14-year-old traffic warrants, three days in jail was plenty. A judge dismissed all of the traffic cases for his time served, and Williams was free to go. While he was locked up, someone stole the $2,800 generator out of Williams’ new food truck.
Williams had used all of the money he had, and borrowed more, to invest $20,000 in The Canteen food truck, from which he sells Chicago-style hot dogs and other sandwiches on the South Side. Now, he has to run an orange extension cord out of his home to power it up every morning because he can’t afford to replace the generator.
The arrest took him by surprise. He had recently settled other traffic citations by paying fines in Licking County, including one for a suspended license, and he thought all of his legal issues were behind him.
“The system is broken for sure, man,” he said. “Everyone needs to follow the traffic laws, but I shouldn’t be in no jail for that long for something like this. People who do a lot worse than have a broken headlight aren’t in jail.”
Clearing the decks
A prosecutor in Columbus is working to erase many old, minor warrants from the books.
Since 2011, Bill Hedrick, the chief prosecutor in the Columbus city attorney’s office, has been methodically seeking the dismissal of thousands of old warrants for minor misdemeanors such as traffic offenses. He started with cases from the 1980s and is now working on warrants from 2002. As of September, he’d asked municipal court judges to dismiss about 2,600 cases this year.
“I don’t want to see anybody in jail for these offenses, and I don’t think anyone else in the system does either,” Hedrick said.
There’s often no good way to prosecute these old cases, even if police do pick up the scofflaws. The officer who wrote the ticket is likely to be retired or is unlikely to even remember the case if he or she is still on the force.
“A misdemeanor charge is like fresh produce,” Hedrick said. “It doesn’t get better with time. Witnesses disappear. Officers forget.”
But he points out that the warrants are there because the defendant did not address the ticket. There’s a spot on the bottom right corner of traffic tickets in Franklin County that says: “IF YOU FAIL TO APPEAR AT THIS TIME AND PLACE YOU MAY BE ARRESTED OR YOUR LICENSE MAY BE CANCELLED.” It’s right under a date and time, and next to the court’s address.
“Most of these, the reason they have warrants is they didn’t come to court,” Hedrick said. “They have brought this situation upon themselves.”
Franklin County Municipal Courtroom 4D handles arraignments six mornings a week for those who have spent the previous night in the county jail. Nearly every session, several defendants like Williams appear, after having been jailed on a warrant for not appearing at an earlier court date to address a summons for a minor crime.
In most of those cases, the arraignment judge will dismiss the case for time served. In return for spending jail time on a charge for which none is indicated in the first place, any fines and fees typically also are dismissed.
If there’s a better way to get people into court after they’ve failed to appear to address a traffic ticket or other summons, Franklin County Municipal Court Judge James E. Green would like to hear it.
“We are as frustrated as anyone on this side of things, because we don’t want to see the guy who gets pulled over for a speeding ticket having an outstanding warrant and getting arrested at a time when they’re not expecting to get arrested, at a time that’s least convenient for them to be arrested and then the situation escalates,” Green said.
“But it’s going to happen.”
It happened to Greg Jones.
Jones says he forgot all about a traffic ticket a Columbus police officer wrote to him for not wearing a seat belt in 2015. Three years later, in August, he spent a night in jail and nearly lost his job.
Jones, 29, was leaving the East Side apartment complex where he lives with his wife and four children. That Sunday afternoon in August, he was on his way to grab some lunch and then head to work at his warehouse job when a Columbus police officer stopped him for improperly displaying his front license plate in the windshield.
When the officer checked his license, he found the open arrest warrant from 2015, issued when Jones failed to appear in court to address the seat belt ticket. He asked Jones to step out of the car, handcuffed him and called in to confirm the warrant. Then he took Jones to the Franklin County Jail.
“I don’t remember that ticket,” Jones said later. He has had other traffic cases and had recently gotten his license reinstated. In doing that, he said he had called the court to check whether he had any outstanding problems to resolve. He said he was told there were none.
When he was arrested, Jones didn’t have money to pay the $123 in fines and costs on the seat belt ticket. He’d just spent money to move to the new apartment and was between paychecks. He had planned to spend a chunk of his next check on school supplies for his kids.
So he was booked into the jail to await arraignment the next morning. Police impounded his car. He missed his shift at work.
The following morning, Judge Green dismissed the case for time served and waived the fines and court costs. But Jones said he wasn’t released until 9 p.m., so he missed another shift at work.
“I almost got fired from my job,” he said. “I had to plead with them.”
His next paycheck was smaller because of the time he’d missed, he still needed to pay to get his car out of the impounding lot and his kids were still starting school.
Could the court have handled it another way?
With thousands of cases on the court’s docket, it would take too many resources to call defendants and remind them of their court dates, Green said. And just leaving the cases in limbo won’t work either. What if the court just put a hold on the defendants’ driver’s licenses until they pay their tickets?
“Let me tell you about the number of cases we have coming through here on people driving without a valid license,” Green said. “There’s a lot of people who feel they do not need a valid license in order to drive.”
Some courts are looking for ways to address the concerns about jailing people for not appearing in court for minor offenses.
In Akron, those who don’t address their traffic tickets by paying them or coming to court are notified that they will forfeit their license in 30 days if they don’t take care of their tickets.
“That puts more onus on them to get back into valid status,” said Susan Baker Ross, traffic court magistrate for Akron Municipal Court.
If they come in after 30 days and have to get the forfeiture lifted, the court charges an extra $5 fee and defendants are offered a payment plan. If they don’t pay, there’s still no warrant, and a collection agency takes over the fine.
If they’re pulled over while the forfeiture is in place, they get another ticket and another summons into court for driving under suspension, Ross said. They’re still not arrested.
“We give them every option we can to help them have a valid license,” she said.
Jim Laria, the clerk of courts in Akron since 1997, says the system, using a 2004 Ohio law that allows courts to suspend a driver’s license for failure to appear in a traffic case, gets results.
“Our receivables have gone up,” he said. “The collection process has helped. They do a good job of following up with notices and the potential problems for your credit rating. You don’t have to pay it all off at once, you can continue to do your installments.”
Just issuing a reminder of a court date, now efficiently done through a text message, can significantly cut down on failure-to-appear warrants and reduce jail populations, said Nancy Fishman, project director at the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute for Justice, in New York City, which has worked with cities across the country to reduce the use of jail for nondangerous offenders.
“Court appearances are like dentist appointments,” she said. ”If you get a text message that you have a court date, people show up.”
New York City and Philadelphia made certain minor offenses off limits for arrest, Fishman said, by designating misdeeds such as having an open container of alcohol, littering or creating loud noise from criminal to civil infractions that carry only a fine.
New York City made the switch in 2016, when it had 1.5 million open arrest warrants for minor crimes, about one for every six New Yorkers, according to the New York City Council’s website. Defendants can now challenge the ticket over the phone without having to go to court, do not end up with a criminal record, and an arrest warrant is never issued.
San Francisco also took on a punitive warrant system in 2016, launching its Financial Justice Project that year. Based in the city treasurer’s office, the project has worked with judges and other officials to adjust fines based on a person’s income and to eliminate the suspension of driver’s licenses.
“We try to adjust those fines on the front end so people have the ability to pay and it doesn’t rise to the level of a warrant,”said Anne Stuhldreher, the program’s director.
“We heard the same thing from the community and courts: People can’t afford to pay, so they don’t show up for court because they are terrified they will lose their license or be jailed,” Stuhldreher said.
“We are all safer because of these efforts, and people appreciate it.”
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