Saturday, May 28, 2016

Living in the Shadows

One of the things I notice most on the streets of Aberdeen or Hoquiam or Westport, is how often people look over their shoulders. For any sign of danger. For someone who has threatened them. And for police. 

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects the rights of citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures” of persons and property. In US legal code, a person can only be arrested if there is “probably cause” of current criminal activity or if a warrant has been issued for that person’s arrest or search of his or her property.

However, in towns across the country, courts and police have been heavily relying on the use of bench warrants. These are arrest warrants issued by a judge for failure to appear in court and, in some municipalities, failure to pay fines or otherwise comply with court orders. In many towns, including our own, the number of warrants issued is large enough to insure that a large number of people can be subject to arrest at any given time, without probable cause.

The number of warrants issued in this county is staggeringly high. Hoquiam, in their 2015 budget, mention about 1,200 municipal warrants issued in a town of about 8,500 people. That is one warrant for every 7 persons (though, it must be noted, that there can be multiple warrants issued for the same person). In Westport, the last time the website was updated in mid 2015, I counted 600 warrants issued and, counting out multiple warrants issued for a single person, roughly 400 people with outstanding warrants. This is in a town of about 2,000 people, meaning that just under ¼ of the population had municipal warrants out for their arrest. County courts, on last check, had about 3600 misdemeanor warrants and about 500 felony warrants.  

This warrant system most heavily targets people who are poor or homeless. Lack of transportation or lack of ways to keep time mean that court dates are missed. Court procedures are long, usually requiring the defendant to sign away their right to a speedy trial and the average public defender (because they are given such a heavy caseload) have very little time to spend on each case. The courts often mandate treatment that the defendant cannot afford, require regular check ins, and impose fees and fines that the defendant often cannot pay. These are some of the reasons a person would fail to appear.

A large number of original offenses—vagrancy, driving without insurance, trespassing, burglary (including breaking into an abandoned building to sleep), petty theft, etc are poverty related offenses in the first place. Drug use and possession is heavily penalized, often resulting in multiple felonies, with almost no access to treatment or a way out of poverty. Many people find it impossible to survive on the streets without some form of self-medication.

If a person wishes to “quash” their warrant (have it lifted), both Aberdeen and Hoquiam charge a $100 fee. In lieu of that, in Hoquiam, a person can show up to a court session and try and get the warrant quashed and a new court date set.

Otherwise, people remain technically “on the run from the law” until they are picked up by police. Obviously, jails do not have enough room to house the number of warrants out at any given time. Periodically, most cities and occasionally the sheriff’s department do “warrant sweeps,” where jails are opened up and large numbers of people with outstanding warrants are picked up.

This system creates an enormous amount of trauma and anxiety. People are always looking over their shoulder, always waiting to be arrested, and if police want to target an individual, they run their name to check on warrant status. This pushes a large number of people into the shadows, in constant fear of arrest.

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