Category Archives: Bench Warrant

Unlawful Arrest for Failure to Pay Court Fines.

In State v. Sleater, the WA Court of Appeals Div. III held an arrest warrant may not issue for a defendant who fails to schedule an appearance in court to explain why she had failed to pay her court fines.

The Defendant Ms. Sleater had prior convictions for various drug offenses. As of April 2014, she was making a combined monthly payment of$75 toward three cases. She was also entered into Benton County’s “pay or appear” program. It required her to make her legal financial obligation (LFO) payments every month or appear to schedule a hearing to explain why she could not make the payments. The program agreement also stated that if the defendant did not make a payment and failed to schedule a hearing, “a warrant will be issued for the Defendant’s arrest.”

For months, Ms. Sleater’s mother paid the monthly fines. Her mother made a $150 on-line payment on April 17, 2014. Unfortunately, the computer did not apportion the sum among the three accounts, but applied all of the money to only one case number identified with the payment. AS a result, The other two counts were four and seven months behind.

On April 22, 2014 the clerk’s office obtained arrest warrants for Ms. Sleater since she had not made payments on those two cases and had not scheduled a hearing to explain the lack of payments.

On May 16, 2014 officers arrested Ms. Sleater on the two warrants. She possessed methamphetamine at the time of her arrest. Consequently, the prosecutor filed one count of possession of a controlled substance. Her attorney moved to suppress the evidence under CrR 3.6 on the claim that the warrants were wrongly issued. However, the trial court denied the motion and found Ms. Sleater guilty at trial.  She appealed.

The WA Court of Appeals held that the arrest warrants were invalidly issued in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable seizures, and that seizure is reasonable if it serves a governmental interest which is adequate to justify imposing on the liberty of the individual.” However, it violates due process to punish defendants for failing to pay fines if the defendant cannot pay simply because they are impoverished.

“Nor can a state impose a fine and convert it to jail time solely because a defendant has no ability to pay the fine. The State must afford the defendant a hearing before jailing him for failing to pay his obligations. While the court can put the burden to prove inability to pay on the defendant, it still has a duty to inquire into a defendant’s ability to pay fines prior to jailing him.”

Here, the Court reasoned that the effect of the arrest warrants was to require Ms. Sleater to go to jail for failing to pay her LFOs without first conducting an inquiry into her ability to pay them:

“The facts of this case demonstrate the need for such an inquiry. Ms. Sleater’s mother did make a payment toward her daughter’s LFOs, but through some type of error the payment was not reflected in all three files. A hearing before the warrants issued would have allowed the court to resolve the problem without the necessity of an arrest.”

Here, reasoned the Court, a warrant should not have issued for defendant’s failure to pay without first determining the willfulness of that violation. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed Ms Sleater’s conviction for possessing methamphetamine.

Good decision.

State v. Erickson: Probation Officers Given Too Much Power

Ugly opinion.  WA Supremes decided a court may issue a bench warrant without a formal finding of probable cause on the underlying allegations after the defendant fails to appear at a probation violation hearing.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/index.cfm?fa=opinions.showOpinion&filename=815941MAJ

Anthony Erickson received probation after he was convicted of fourth degree assault.  His probation officer alleged Erickson violated the terms of his probation.  Erickson was issued a summons ordering him to appear at a probation violation hearing.  When Erickson failed to appear, the court issued a bench warrant for his arrest.  Erickson was subsequently arrested.  A strip search at the jail revealed he possessed cocaine.

The WA Supremes reasoned that because Erickson failed to notify the court of any change of address, the judge in the lower court had a “well-founded suspicion” that Erickson had violated that condition of his release.  Consequently, the judge had authority to issue the bench warrant based on that alone.

My opinion?  It’s unbelievable that the allegations – and that’s all they are, mere allegations – of a probation officer are upheld as stone-cold truth by judges if a defendant fails to show up for a hearing.  It’s unbelievable that judges can now issue bench warrants because a defendant failed to notify their probation officer of an address change.  It’s unbelievable that defendants can be taken into custody, strip searched, and arrested because they failed to notify their probation officer of an address change.

This case highlights how unfairly the gears of the criminal justice system grind away at individual rights.  I hope this gets appealed to a higher court.

Police Officer Says Public Safety May Be In Danger If Cuts Continue

I couldn’t resist blogging this topic.

http://www.bellinghamherald.com/681/story/1187556.html

The writer – who is also a Bellingham police officer – objects to the City’s proposal to lay off police officers in the face of decreased budgets and the economic recession.   The article is informative.  He discusses increased 911 calls, the “freezing” of more officer positions, understaffing at present levels, the fiscal responsibility of the police department (they cut their own budget by $1M), and the phenomenon of “hit and run law enforcement:”

“If layoffs are to occur, then the Bellingham Police Department will be providing what we in the profession call ‘hit and run law enforcement:’ running from incident to incident without giving each incident the attention it might deserve – going from call to call, always going on to the next crisis before fully solving the one before and not developing relationships with the public, not addressing needs in the community and not protecting the public to the best of our ability simply because we will be doing ‘more with less.'”

My opinion?  I’ve got mixed reactions.  Yes, we should adequetely fund public safety.  Yes, police should be well-trained and reasonably equipped to handle a myriad of situations.  Yes, police must have resources to respond – quickly –  when contacted for emergencies.

I object, however, when police abuse their authority.  I object when police obtain evidence illegally.  I object when prosecutors refuse to make reasonable plea offers on weak cases.  I object when defendants a grinded through a legal system which unnecessarily costs too much time and money.  I really object when defendants are issued bench warrants and/or Bail Jumping charges after failing to appear for their hearings on the aforementioned “weak cases,” which should have never been filed or dismissed long ago.

I propose a two-part solution: First, discontinue funding for the City’s Anti-Crime Team (I blogged about this waaaay back on August 7).  The  Anti-Crime Team (ACT) is a proactive sub-unit of the Bellingham Police Department.  They provide additional investigations/policing of our neighborhoods by serving bench warrants, conducting police interviews, plotting stakeouts, etc.  In other words, ACT is proactively involved with community caretaking functions.

I question whether ACT is necessary.  Fine lines exists between community caretaking, wasting of resources, and police abuse.  Community caretaking wastes resources when police serve bench warrants on low-income defendants accused of low-profile crimes.  It also becomes an abuse of power when police conduct unlawful “pretext” investigations (I discuss pretext in my August 7 blog).

Second, save resources by convincing City prosecutors to actively dismiss and/or amend their weaker criminal cases.  Everybody benefits!  Police won’t needlessly testify at witness interviews, pretrial motions, or trials.  We keep them on the streets, where they should be.  Also, defendants avoid the grinding, unforgiving process of the criminal justice system.

Bellingham Police Department Launches Anti-Crime Team

Bellingham’s finest created a five-person police team dedicated to warrant arrests, stakeouts, sting operations, and plainclothes detective work.  The team’s goal is to reduce  — and follow up on — the number of 911 calls the police department receives.  “Our purpose is basically to do what patrol doesn’t have time to do,” Sgt. Keith Johnson said.  “If we can spend some quality time and solve problems rather than deal with them every time they flare up, then the community benefits and patrol benefits.”

http://www.bellinghamherald.com/onpatrol/story/1018782.html

My opinion?  Prepare to see more unlawful arrests . . .

The Anti-Crime Team (ACT) appears to be a proactive sub-unit of the Bellingham Police Department.  In short, ACT provides additional investigations/policing of our neighborhoods.  These activities include serving bench warrants, police interviews, stakeouts, etc.  In other words, ACT is involved in community caretaking.

Know this, however: “community caretaking” is, in reality, a legal term; and establishes an exception to rule that officers MUST have a warrant to arrest citizens.  ACT’s proactive approach could create a risk of abuse to the community caretaking exception of the warrant requirement.  Under WA law, and in light of the risk of abuse, courts must be cautious in applying the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement.  In order to avoid abuse of the exception, community caretaking searches/seizures must be strictly divorced from criminal investigations.  Also, the community caretaking function exception may not be used as a pretext for a criminal investigation.

Given ACT’s proactive approach to neighborhood policing as a “community caretaking” function, we could see an increase in unlawful arrests.

The solution?  Be aware of your Constitutional rights when approached/questioned by police officers.  Be cooperative.  Avoid making unnecesssary statements.  Ask for an attorney.