Monday, August 10, 2009

Houston swamped with warrants for petty offenses

I was interested for a number of reasons to see a story in today's Houston Chronicle by Renee Lee titled "Wanted: Residents with 1.7 million warrants," which opens thusly:

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.

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).

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:

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.

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.

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
The fact that so many of those with with large numbers of arrest warrants are wanted for property violations or business-related crimes reaffirms to me that Levin was on to something - since when did criminal law become the way we regulate business in this country? Surely with all the repeat offenses for failing to affix the right sticker on a vending machine, for example, this approach isn't getting the job done. Are there really no other ways to regulate business activity that don't take police officers away from more important public safety duties?

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."


Anonymous said...

I have no problem following the law.You say petty offenses,I say the law is the law.It not rocket science.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

7:10 - There are many thousands of laws on the books, 2,324 felonies and many, many thousands more misdemeanors. Do you know what they all are? I don't. Figuring out what's legal and what's not can be pretty darn close to "rocket science."

"The law is the law," but the law of diminishing returns also applies. We've watered down the effect of our laws by passing way too many of them, making them too punitive for petty offenses, and criminalizing actions that are really torts rather than crimes.

Besides, given the backlog the system clearly isn't working. Would you rather be punitive and dysfunctional or acknowledge reality and focus police resources more on activities that promote public safety?

Lalo said...

Houston would be lucky to have all those fines paid!

Anonymous said...

A huge part of the problem exists with a simple understanding of the law, as long as someone appears they can make arrangements to pay fines. The misunderstanding for many is the assumption that if they can’t afford to pay the fine they will go to jail. Appear in court as many times as necessary until you get the fine paid and no warrant.

The second part of the scenario is the Justice of the Peace Courts and Municipal Courts failing to see what should be apparent, if someone is trying to do something to have their warrants removed, and all that is left is to pay the fine, and a person fails to appear, take the money! Put em back on payments, and remove the warrant!

Many drivers, especially in large cities rack up the tickets, then they fail to appear because in the interim between receiving a citation and their next court date they don’t have the money to pay the last fine they got and don’t show up, not having an understanding of the above statement, so a warrant is issued. Now they can’t go to court on the new ticket because a warrant has been issued for the last ticket and it must be paid in full. Now they have multiple tickets.

The courts also have a zero tolerance policy, if you’re late your late, warrant issued, give them a grace period.

The courts will turn away defendants who show up in court wearing shorts, and a warrant is issued!

The courts will turn away defendants who have a cell phone, you can’t turn it off, you can’t have it period, that’s fine for the drivers as long as they can run back out to the car without being one second late, but what about the guy that took the bus to get to court, warrant issued.

With all due respect to our honorable judges, who preside over traffic ticket cases, stop being so high and mighty, stop creating 1.7 million traffic warrants, and most importantly, take the money!

If I’m picking on judges and they are acting upon City or County or State policies, with no choice in the matter, then please accept my most humble apology, and help me point the finger at whoever makes these decisions not to take the money.

This should all be a non-issue. People are going to get tickets, and most of them probably deserve them. The drives responsibility act is a totally different subject, that’s highway robbery.

Go to court, (no warrant), make room for happenstance, (no warrant), take the money, (no warrant). That only leaves room for the “who cares”, so issue the warrant.

Soronel Haetir said...

So are there rewards available for bringing these scofflaws to justice?

Hook Em Horns said...

This is why every municipality in Harris County has a "city" jail. This state is JAIL AND PRISON CRAZY!! C R A Z Y!!!!

Hook Em Horns said...


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sure Soronel, except the "reward" is for the serious criminals who get to ply their trade while officers are messing around with petty scofflaws. And I'm sure they appreciate it!

Charlie O said...


Heard you on Morning Edition this morning on the way to work. Good on you!

Stories like this continue to make me soooo happy I got out of Fort Worth and moved to cool and green south central PA. Still have to put up with rednecks, but I guess they're everywhere.

Anon. 7:10. You may be a rocket scientist, but you're also a fool. There are cops in Texas who don't know the law, how the hell are the citizens supposed to know them?

I was received a ticket in Haltom City for not wearing a motorcycle helmet back when Texas had a mandatory helmet law. The law however had a medical exemption. I was healing a broken jaw and could not fasten a helmet to my head. I had the proper paperwork from my doctor to NOT wear a helmet. I gave the paperwork to the cop who pulled me over. He looked at me like I was stupid. I asked him if knew what the law said. He said he did. I replied that if he wrote me a ticket, he certainly did not have a clue as the wording of the law.

I, of course, had to take time off from work to go to court to fight a ticket I should never have received. The one upside though, was making the cop look like a fool in court when I handed him a copy of the Texas statute and asked him to please read the section on medical exemptions. The judge promptly dismissed the ticket.

Nelson Muntz said...

The law is the law, except when cops break the law: then it's policy and training and investigations instead of prosecution and punishment.

If a cop Tasers a citizen, it is 'appropriate use of force'. When a citizen Tasers a cop, it is attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, and aggravated battery.

Until we hold the police to the same standard citizens are held to, there will never be justice.

Anonymous said...

Charlie O.. Good for you to go and fight the ticket and win.. But really the Cops don't care.. Because when they are in court they get overtime pay.

I knew a COP that loved to give out out bullshit tickets because he got to sit in an air conditioned court room instead of a Police cruiser and made overtime, plus he knew that most of the people he ticketed would not be able to take time off from work to come and fight the charge and would pay the fine via mail.

So you see it is a scam designed to make you part with your money and take your taxes to support the continuous theiving bastards

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous ...
Most of us have no problem following the law - when we know what it is. Trouble is there are so many so-called laws - as Grits... has pointed out already.
In most States, and at the Federal level, laws are passed by legislatures. Codes, rules and regulations are then promulgated by executive-level bureaucracies charged with carrying the laws into effect. It is these codes, rules and regulations that most people run afoul of and not necessarily the explicit, or implicit, meaning of the law itself. A cursory examination of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) shows what the positive law is vs. the codes, rules and regulations established by the executive level agencies (they're so-marked) - which is also the level where many of the penalties are affixed for violations.
Bureaucracies operate at the level of legality - that which is legal or illegal - which is the "form" of law (all "i"'s dotted, "t"'s crossed, etc.). This is why a man may be subject to criminal warrant for an act as meaningless as failure to affix a "legal" instrument to a vending machine. I'd be willing to bet several Federal Reserve Accounting Unit Devices ($'s) that the "Law" says nothing about stickers on vending machines. The bureaucrats Codes, Rules and Regulations contain those stipulations. Do we know that the man failed to comply with the law, as written? That he failed to "pay the tax", or failed to have the "inspection" done? No. He's merely guilty of failing to follow the form. This is legalism, and it's one of the biggest reasons why the US has the largest percentage of its population ensconsed in concrete and steel cages of any industrialized country in the world.

William L. Anderson said...

Most Americans are not even aware of just how many laws are on the books and how many of them they violate each day. Most people who are reading this blog have broken federal law in one way or another without knowing it. To put it another way, they are felons.

If the 10 p.m. poster wants to be consistent, then I say he needs to turn himself into the local federal prosecutor if he ever has made a personal phone call at work or downloaded anything on his work computer that is not business related. That is called "honest services fraud," and it is a catch-all crime that the feds use on a lot of people.

There is more, much more. Most Americans commit at least one federal felony a day. So, Mr. 10 p.m., it is "not rocket science." Be a good citizen and turn yourself in and serve your prison time without complaining.

Anonymous said...

I have done none of the above.Try again sir.

Anonymous said...

it's called POP.

Hook Em Horns said...

Hold the cops to the same accountability as citizens? yuck yuck yuck...never happen....

Hook Em Horns said...

I was just thinking that if you add up everything in Texas that constitutes a felony and everything that constitutes a misdemeanor you will probably find that EVERYTHING is criminal behavior. This state is NUTS!