Lots of people out there have outstanding warrants.
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.
Houston alone has more than 1.2 million outstanding class C misdemeanor warrants. On average, most people have one to three active warrants. Many alleged offenders have multiple warrants because they receive a warrant for each violation on the citation, plus they get an additional warrant for failure to appear in court.
The warrants cover violations from motorists who run red lights to business owners who don’t have burglar alarm permits to residents who don’t properly handle yard waste.
Court officials estimate the warrants are worth about $300 million, which would be pumped into the city’s general fund when collected. A lot of that money, however, is not actually owed to the city until a person is found guilty.
City Councilwoman Sue Lovell said city officials are more concerned about closed cases that still have unpaid fines. She said the municipal court needs to be more aggressive about collecting fines on those cases.
It’s nice to imagine we could have $300 million more revenue available in the city’s budget, but that figure is largely an illusion. It costs money to collect those fines, especially if they get turned over to a collection agency, which will skim a percentage of what they take in off the top. Some people will put up a fight in court over what they’re owed, which costs money, and some of them will win partial or complete victories. Some people simply won’t pay up and will wind up serving jail time instead, which needless to say is costly. Some people who are willing to pay simply can’t afford it; they may wind up making a settlement, paying on a plan, or serving time instead. A better question to ask is how much could the city reasonably expect to collect when it does its next sweep. Speaking of which:
About 80 percent of Houston’s warrants are traffic-related, said Gwen Goins, spokeswoman for Houston Municipal Courts Administration. Yet, some of the city’s worst offenders are those with building code violations related to property or businesses they own. The top nine offenders each have 99 or more warrants. All but two live in the Houston area, and despite having addresses listed in court documents, none have been arrested.
Houston police officials say they target the worst offenders first when they conduct annual warrant sweeps, and they’re usually more interested in catching those involved in other illegal activity, said Assistant Chief Vicki King.
“We really want to get criminals off the street,” King said. “People who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay are not forgotten. If they get caught, they will go to jail.”
Everyone says we don’t have enough cops on the street. What do you want the cops we do have to be doing – fighting crime, or rounding up people with unpaid tickets? Annual sweeps of the biggest scofflaws make sense, but beyond a certain point it’s a waste of police resources.
There are other ways to try to get people to pay.
When people don’t show in court after 30 days, courts are required by law to flag the defendant’s name in the Texas Department of Safety database. It prevents people from renewing their driver’s license or getting a driver’s license if they don’t have one. The tool often motivates people to take care of their tickets.
Many courts send notices reminding people of their warrants. It’s a less effective alternative but sometimes triggers responses.
Annual amnesty programs and warrant sweeps continue to help clear cases, and new technology is being used to better manage cases and to catch scofflaws. Houston municipal courts, for example, are looking at flagging a defendant’s vehicle registration through the state transportation department’s database, said presiding Judge Berta Mejia.
And 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.
Cops with credit card readers seems like a strange thing at first, but it makes sense. Any time you can get someone to settle up without having to send a cop or constable to their house, or arrest them, is a win. The idea of flagging vehicle registrations came up last year in the context of unpaid red light camera fines, which naturally meant there was a certain amount of fear and loathing involved as well. I think as long as there are reasonable safeguards in place that it’s a decent idea. Again, it’s all about minimizing the cost of the collection. How else would you propose to do it?