COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | LARRY STIRLING

Surrounded by fugitives

"Surrounded by Fugitives" is the title of an article in Readers Digest that received worldwide circulation. The article dealt with the fact that millions of unserved arrest warrants litter the file drawers of courts and law enforcement agencies throughout the nation, with almost nothing being done about them. The subjects of these warrants are committing most of the serious crimes.

Here is a sampling of just two recent days' headlines in a local paper: "Man, teen shot inside apartment"; "Gunmen take hotel safe, cash drawer"; "Robber targets convenience store"; "Knife is used to rob gas station"; "Three robbers tie up pair, ransack home"; "Bank robber hit up two tellers in Vista"; "Man with trash-bag disguise robs store"; "Pockmarked man robs La Jolla bank." And this is just a splinter of the crime that occurred on those two days.

Sheriff Bill Kolender confirmed that, as of Jan. 14, there were 100,588 arrest-warrants outstanding in San Diego County alone. One hundred and thirty one of those warrants were for wanted murderers. Most of those murder warrants have been outstanding for more than 10 years. More than 300 warrants were for robbers, and on and on.

Kolender also confirmed that the balance in unserved warrants "continues to rise."

I had a long and pleasant conversation with the warrant boss of the Sheriff's Department. A fellow ex-Army combat-arms officer, Kolender could not have a better, more dedicated officer in charge of getting warrants served. But, as the sheriff points out, the Sheriff's Department is the only local law enforcement agency that provides a full-time, warrants-service team.

Why is serving warrants important? The nature of crime is that it is committed by a small percentage of the male population. In other words, the root cause of crime is criminals. Arrest criminals and the crime rate goes down. Leave them to roam the streets of our communities and you reap a daily, disgusting diet of headlines as above.

The best way to arrest criminals is to serve arrest warrants. No further probable cause or investigation is necessary. And the best way to discover people with outstanding warrants is to enforce traffic laws. Those criminals are driving around our streets looking for their next victims.

The statistical fact is that you are not likely to be the victim of a serious crime, though way too many are. The problem is that once you are a victim, it's too late to do much about the system.

The current system is sorry indeed. It is the duty of every -- I repeat every -- law-enforcement officer and agency to serve arrest (and bench) warrants.

However, logically enough, for that duty to become incumbent on a police officer, the court needs to notify the law-enforcement agency that a particular warrant has been issued. Do you believe that we have an effective system in place to accomplish that here in 2005?

We do not. Once a month, the Sheriff's Department, acting as the court's marshal via contract, prints out a list of current warrants by geography and mails it to various agencies.

This is a faintest of fig leaves of an attempt to meet the legal obligation of the court to notify law enforcement that various warrants have been issued. By the time the hard copy is mailed, much of the data is already 30 days old. And even that list is not uniformly distributed to field officers.

It's not clear to me why an entire string of presiding judges have ignored this issue. It is incumbent on the courts to notify law enforcement of the warrants issued, or by law and logic, they have no duty to serve them.

But the real evildoers associated with this issue are the Board of Directors of the Automated Regional Justice Information System (ARJIS) and the managements of the various local law-enforcement agencies that run ARJIS via its technical committee.

I personally blame that board for gross negligence in failing to acquire the most current warrant information and placing that information directly into the hands of local law enforcement officers for their own protection, if not ours.

Officers do not know, when they pull a car over, whether the driver of that car is a potential "third striker" or one of the subjects of the 131 murder warrants.

This puts the officers in extreme danger.

Worse, the above figures that I have cited are based solely on the data provided by San Diego's sheriff. Missing in this calculus of incompetence are the wanted fugitives other jurisdictions throughout North America.

Once a community gets a reputation for being lax on fugitives, that community becomes a haven for fugitives. In other words, in addition to the hundred thousand or so fugitives that we know about, there are potentially thousands of others scouting our streets for victims.

Ultimately, this is our fault. Each of us has elected City Council members who have sloughed off their responsibility to fight crime.

Your City Council representatives have an indirect vote on the ARJIS board, and the SANDAG board that oversees ARJIS. They are also the bosses of the law-enforcement agency in your city and have direct control over the policies of that agency.

Why has your City Council member not demanded that the courts give them up-to-the-minute information about all fugitives to protect both police officers and citizens?

Why has your City Council not directed ARJIS to be programmed to provide the software and hardware to forward that information to the officers in the field in real time?

And why doesn't each law enforcement agency have full-time fugitive teams to seek out, in cooperation with other agencies throughout the nation, the criminal scourges that wreck our communities and destroy the lives of way too many?

Why must we be surrounded by fugitives?


Stirling, a former Army officer, budget analyst and director of finance, represented the people of San Diego on the City Council and in the State Assembly and Senate. He retired as a Superior Court judge and now practices law and governmental relations in San Diego. He can be reached at larry.stirling@sddt.com.

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