The idea that there are 1.7 million outstanding warrants in the Houston area, 1.2 million in Houston alone, means that a large proportion of Houstonites have outstanding arrest warrants (though the article didn't provide that number). After all, there are only 2.2 million people living in Houston to begin with (and not all of them are drivers).
Nearly 2 million warrants worth more than $340 million are outstanding in the Houston area, and in most cases they're not for hard-core criminals.
They're for average residents who haven't settled minor traffic and ordinance citations.
The class C misdemeanor offenses, punishable by fines only, can be resolved by showing up at a municipal or justice of the peace court to answer the charge. But when people fail to comply with the law, judges are forced to issue warrants for their arrest.
The figures, based on information provided to the Houston Chronicle from a select number of courts in Houston and five surrounding counties, document only a snapshot of the widespread problem, which overwhelms some courts and law enforcement agencies. Judges and police officials say managing thousands of case files and tracking down scofflaws is a never-ending task. As soon as warrants are cleared, more roll in.
Regular readers know that more than 10% of Texas drivers have outstanding arrest warrants, mostly for traffic offenses. So while I'm not surprised at the scope of Houston's numbers, to the extent traffic tickets are the source of the problem these cases are taking up a disproportionate amount of resources by police and the courts that would be better spent focused on more serious offenses. According to Lee, "About 80 percent of Houston's warrants are traffic-related."
Indeed, increasingly Houston police are spending more and more time as debt collectors instead of working more serious criminal cases:
last year, Houston police purchased automated license plate readers that read up to 60 vehicle license plates per minute, enabling patrol officers to pull over those with warrants. In addition, police now have the ability to run credit card payments so people can settle outstanding warrants on the spot.The recession has exacerbated the problem, Lee reported:
And of course, many who have outstanding tickets also have unpaid civil "Driver Responsibility" surcharges which makes repayment of fines that much more unlikely, especially for the indigent.
Judges said financial issues keep many people from settling their cases. The recession hasn't helped the situation. Many people have to choose between paying their grocery bill or their tickets.
“It's going to get worse before it gets better,” said Montgomery County's Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Lanny Moriarty, whose court has more than 23,000 warrants.
But I was also interested to see that many of those with the largest number of outstanding warrants weren't for traffic but were essentially for business-related "crimes," mostly petty code enforcement. According to a sidebar appearing with the story, one offender had "183 violations charging him with failure to securely attach a tax permit to a coin-operated machine" - a surprisingly common offense among those with the most outstanding warrants. That's also an offense with very few serious public safety implications compared to other laws police could be enforcing.
This aspect of the issue brings to mind a report published a few years back by our pal Marc Levin at the Texas Public Policy Foundation: "Not just for criminals: Overcriminalization in the Lone Star State" (pdf), discussed in this Grits post, in which he identified the main areas where criminal law has been improperly overemphasized:
- General business activities
- Regulated business activities
- Occupational licensing
- Non-economic activities
- School discipline
I recently mentioned that South Korea is preparing to pardon up to 1.5 million people for low-level offenses so that they can reduce the number of unlicensed drivers and rationalize their approach to enforcement of petty laws. Given the volume of warrants in Texas, the same solution could likely be justified here, though I wouldn't expect Governor Perry to pursue that path anytime soon.
BLOGVERSATION: From the LRC Blog, see "Tax-Feeders and the New Debtors' Prisons."