There ought to be a law.
I read about Eric Barrier, half of the classic rap duo Eric B. and Rakim, and how he recently wound up in jail. The story is interesting not because it’s unusual but because it’s typical.
Without getting into the weeds of his original 2002 offense because that would distract from my point here, Barrier’s lawyer told him to skip his sentencing hearing because his presence wasn’t required.
Wrong. Unbeknownst to Barrier, New Jersey authorities had issued a warrant for his arrest. “More than 17 years passed before he first learned of the warrant, from law enforcement authorities in Vermont when he came into the United States from Canada last month,” according to The New York Times. In October, Barrier presented himself to court officials, who promptly arrested him. He was freed on bail Nov. 12 after weeks in prison. I’m 99 percent sure he would have addressed the issue if he’d known about it.
This is a common problem. Every day, courts across the United States issue thousands of arrest warrants for crimes ranging from serious felonies to offenses as minor as failing to pay a parking ticket, jaywalking or not renewing a dog license. Millions of Americans have outstanding warrants. In 2016, there were 1.5 million warrants for New Yorkers — one out of six residents of the city.
The vast majority has no idea they’re wanted.
“Most jurisdictions around the nation are doing nothing with warrants like this. Nothing,” said Professor David Kennedy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Criminals and innocent citizens alike conduct their daily routines oblivious of the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads until they get pulled over for a traffic stop or otherwise come into contact with a police officer. The computer spits out their name, handcuffs get slapped on, and off they go, sucked into the system.
When it’s a rapist or a murderer, that’s great. But does a system that only snags rapists and murderers who don’t make full stops and drive over the speed limit make sense?
It’s not so great to arrest and process people who committed minor offenses, many of whom would have happily paid their old tickets if the state didn’t keep them ignorant about their legal peril.
Many friends I talked to about this subject told me that they or someone they knew had been arrested on a warrant they’d never heard of. It’s hardly surprising. About 7 million Americans are driving around with their licenses suspended because municipalities believe they owe money for unpaid parking tickets or moving violations. Many of them have no idea they are a single traffic stop away from a seriously bad day.
I got a speeding ticket and paid the fine, on time. But the municipality didn’t credit me. I had my canceled check so I assumed I was in the clear. Later, when I was pulled over for something different, the officer informed me that my license had been pulled over the “unpaid” ticket — the DMV never notified me of the suspension, and no, I hadn’t moved — so the cop arrested me and took me to the station for an hour or two. Setting things straight ultimately cost me thousands of dollars in attorney fees.
Warrants and license suspensions can be life-changing events. What if you get nabbed on your way to pick up your child from school and they take away your phone while you’re being booked? Given how disruptive warrants are, not just to civilians but also to law enforcement officers who should be chasing actual criminals, there ought to be a federal law mandating that states and local municipalities send notices via the mail to the last address for people wanted for arrest or whose driving privileges have been suspended. Notices should be mailed repeatedly, at least annually, to give people a chance to make things right.
Police departments and other government agencies have massive comprehensive universal databases, some with facial recognition and DNA, that make it possible for them to find almost anyone in the United States if they really want to.
So why don’t issuers of arrest warrants tap into these resources? The cynic in me has an answer: Governments make millions of dollars by dunning scofflaws with additional fines, fees and bail. That’s a revenue stream that would vanish if most people knew they owed cash and where to send it in to settle their debt.
If Congress acts, life will get a little easier. More importantly, it will restore a bit of the faith Americans have lost in our government and public officials.
Rall is a political cartoonist and columnist. Follow him on Twitter @TedRall.