Prince George’s County’s Office of the Sheriff will soon begin “cleaning house” by tossing out thousands of old misdemeanor cases contributing to the backlog of warrants,which officials say takes up time and money that could be spend on tracking down felons and fugitives with more serious offenses.
New state legislation signed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in May gives sheriff’s departments the ability to identify certain outdated misdemeanor warrants and submit them to the state’s attorney’s office for consideration to toss them out. Misdemeanors are any minor crimes such as public intoxication, trespassing and failing to pay a traffic citation.
Senate Bill 496 goes into effect Oct. 1.
Sheriff’s department officials said there are roughly 46,000 backlogged county warrants, a decrease from 53,000 before Sheriff Melvin C. High took office December 2010.
The majority of the warrants are misdemeanors and more than half of the 46,000 are for failing to appear in court for a traffic citation, said Sharon Taylor, a department spokeswoman. Taylor said the number of backlogged felony warrants is fewer than 500. In addition, roughly 10,000 of those backlogged warrants are more than 10 years old.
High, who lobbied for the bill, said so many misdemeanor warrants are unservable because of a variety of factors such as witnesses no longer being available or a business that may have been subject to robbery closing down and no longer being able to represent itself in court. He said the bill will allow for the destruction of warrants when reviewing them rather than continually investigating and processing some that will only later be dropped in court.
“A considerable effort goes into every warrant,” he said. “We think this is a better approach to make sure the system reviews these things on the front side.”
Sheriff’s department officials said each warrant is re-examined each year and the process to re-validate a warrant takes 20- to 30-minutes, which can add up when there are 46,000 backlogged warrants.
Though he did not know specifically how much, High also said the ability to destroy those warrants will also save the county money that would normally be spent on administrative and court fees to process cases that would ultimately be dropped.
“This will allow us to clean house and continue to focus taxpayers’ limited resources to issues that are most important,” sheriff’s office Inspector General Mark Spencer said, noting that even though sheriff’s deputies prioritize workloads by serving felony warrants first, the destruction of backlogged warrants will put one less thing on their plate of duties.
Col. Darin Palmer, the department’s chief assistant sheriff, said sheriff’s deputies will still review warrants before requesting for them to be destroyed. He also said the warrants looked to be destroyed are for offenders that do not typical have extensive criminal backgrounds.
“These are folks who have had single offenses and virtually no contact with law enforcement,” he said. “These aren’t people who have constant run-ins with the law.”
High said the legislation is better for the safety of the county, as it will allow sheriff’s deputies to focus more fully on serious offenses.
More than 100 new warrants come into the sheriff’s department daily, High said.
“A current warrant for a serious offense is more of a danger to our community than a misdemeanor warrant that is 30 years old,” High said.