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Have An Outstanding Warrant? You Might Want To Double Check

Tennessee Watson
Outstanding warrants line a shelf in the Albany County Sheriff's Office.

Police officers are expected to uphold the law, but what the law requires isn't always clear-cut. For example, how law enforcement agencies interpret legal documents like warrants varies across the state, and what officers decide to do can have serious consequences. On a recent ride-along with the Albany County Sheriff's Office, I witnessed one of those situations.

I spent most of the day observing Corporal Jeremy Huston make traffic spots for speeding and busted brake lights, but at the end of the day, things got a little more exciting.

We're rolling down a dirt road on the north side of Laramie headed towards a spot where kids go to smoke pot after school. And sure enough, there's a little Toyota sedan parked just off the road full of puffy white smoke.

Huston parks, calls in his location to the dispatcher and jumps out to check out what's going on. He leaves me and his police dog behind in the truck.

He chats with the three kids in the car for a bit. When back up arrives, he asks them to exit the vehicle so he can search them and the car.

Then he comes back to give me an update.

"So, he had a pipe and the green container was full of marijuana, and she had a pipe in the back," said Huston.

The two with weed on them are 18 and 19 and will get citations for possession of a controlled substance. The third kid had nothing on her so no charge. But because she's only 15, Huston has to release her to a parent or guardian.

And it's when her mom shows up that things get interesting.

The second officer on the scene had called in the mom's identification before releasing her kid. The dispatcher comes back over the radio to deliver some unfortunate news.

"Mom's got a warrant," Huston tells me.

What happens next baffles me. I watch out the front windshield as Huston hands citations to the 18 and 19-year-old, and those two who are probably high, get to drive away. While out the passenger window, I watch tears stream down the cheeks of the 15-year-old girl as her mom gets cuffed and loaded into the second officer's vehicle for a ride to county jail.

Luckily, her older brother came along with her mom, so she has a ride home.

As we drive away from the scene Huston explains what just happened.

"Mom went to jail on a failure to pay warrant on a no-insurance charge," said Huston.

She owed a $455 fine for driving without car insurance, and the court had a warrant out for her arrest. In Albany County, Huston says there's no way around that.

"In a lot of jurisdictions, with traffic warrants, the officers that are on the scene have discretion on whether or not they want to release them or arrest them, but not in our jurisdiction," said Huston.

If he responds to a victim of a crime who has an outstanding warrant, Huston says, he'd have to arrest that person too.

A Threat To Public Safety?

Faryn Babbitt, executive director of the Albany County SAFE Project, works with survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. She says she's watched clients be arrested at her shelter.

"My experience has been that many times people don't realize that they have a warrant because it was something maybe really minor, or in all of her trauma or all of her chaos she didn't remember or know about, and then she was arrested," said Babbitt.

She says officers are generally kind and compassionate, but it can still impact a survivor's willingness to work with the criminal justice system in the future.

"And then perpetrators are not held accountable," said Babbitt.

Albany County Undersheriff Josh DeBree says that's unfortunate but that's the way it is.

"We have a warrant that was issued by the courts. It's not our decision to do something or not do something with it. So we're going to take care of it," said DeBree.

DeBree says that jailing people who already owe fines can cost the county money.

But some say there's another way to handle warrants for those who don't pose a threat to public safety.

What Other Counties Do

Levi Dominquez is the patrol lieutenant for the Sheridan County Sheriff's Office. He says warrants do command arrest, but the state statute says otherwise.

"It says a peace officer may arrest a person when that officer has a warrant commanding that person to be arrested," said Dominquez.

Dominquez says the word "may" is what gives officers the authority to take in the whole picture when deciding to arrest on the warrant. Like if an officer pulls a parent over with three or four kids in the car for a tail light violation and discovers an outstanding failure to pay warrant.

"Something that isn't a threat to the community, I guess. So, at that point, is it in the best interest of everybody to arrest that person? Or do you say you have a failure to pay warrant? It's a $100 fine on a speeding ticket, why don't you get that taken care of," said Dominquez.

He says in Sheridan County they also call to alert people that they have outstanding warrants.

"The community looks at us in a different way if we're calling them and talking to them about that versus arresting them right away," said Dominquez.

Albany County doesn't call. It used to mail out postcards with warrant information, but Undersheriff Josh DeBree says it was a lot of work without great results.

"It Kind of Snowballed"

As for the mom who was arrested picking up her daughter, she says she didn't know about the warrant. I'm not using her name to protect her daughter's privacy. She says the night in jail only made it harder to pay the outstanding fine because the next morning she missed two hours of work.

"So, it cost me some money, it cost me some stress, it cost my daughter some stress, it cost my daughter going to school the next day and not being 100 percent. It's kind of a snowball and it keeps going," she said.

She admits none of this would have happened had she paid her car insurance, but she says law enforcement also has a choice to help make a situation better or make it worse.

Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.
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