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This report presents findings regarding the handling of outstanding warrants for absconders and persons who have defaulted after having been charged or convicted of offenses related to driving while impaired or intoxicated. This project was not intended to provide a complete picture of the problem of outstanding warrants for DWI and should not be construed as such, but should be viewed as a beginning step in investigating and highlighting this topic. This initial study has attempted to estimate the extent of the problem of outstanding DWI (driving while intoxicated) warrants in various locations across the country.

The specific project objectives were to identify the nature and extent of the outstanding DWI warrant problem, including the situations which lead to the issuance of such warrants; and to identify promising strategies that jurisdictions are using to eliminate or minimize the outstanding DWI warrant problem in their communities. These objectives were to be met utilizing focus groups; site studies, including a review of pertinent data which were made available to project staff; and in-depth reviews of three innovative programs for dealing with outstanding DWI warrants.

Basically, we found that many jurisdictions were not able to easily provide data and could not assess how large a problem may (or may not) exist with FTA (failure to appear) and/or FTC (failure to comply) behavior in their community. When raw data could not be provided (meaning individual arrest and warrant records), and this was the case for the majority of sites, summarized data were gathered, for which accuracy and/or reliability of the information could not be independently verified. Sometimes, records on outstanding warrants are purged from the database when the person contacts the courts, or is arrested. In these cases, it was difficult to determine the true number of FTAs/FTCs and the length of time the majority of warrants were outstanding. Many of the sites reported problems with FTCs after the cases were adjudicated, when those convicted of DWI offenses were not properly monitored to ensure they were complying with court-ordered sanctions. In addition, fear of being recognized as a site with FTA/FTC problems, with the possibility of bad publicity, hindered our attempts to locate information on outstanding warrants. It is understandable that authorities in jurisdictions would have a concern that the subject errant behavior (FTA/FTC) may increase if the problem is made public and more offenders saw this as a means of avoiding sanctions. However, it is difficult to achieve a solution to a problem that has not been properly identified.

We have talked with individuals in each of the study sites about programs and methods which had been implemented to deal with persons who failed to appear at some point during the adjudication process and/or failed to comply with court-ordered sanctions. In most instances, warrants were issued, but often law enforcement agencies had limited personnel and budgets, which restricted the search for absconders and defaulters. And, most often, warrant squads gave priority to the search for persons accused of “more serious offenses” than DWI charges. We were told that locating persons charged with violent crimes typically required the most efforts by law enforcement officers, which left little or no time or resources for seeking individuals charged or convicted of DWI offenses. Additionally, outstanding warrants for failure to comply with sanctions, usually meaning non-payment of fines, has resulted in such a large backlog of outstanding warrants that alternative solutions are now being explored in some areas. Since these fines owed would otherwise not be paid, two alternatives suggested were: to send out a warrant squad specifically targeting those individuals owing large amounts and then paying for the squad with those funds; or privatizing the process by handing those cases over to collection agencies.

Following is a list of the different types of programs or methods involving law enforcement agencies that different jurisdictions which participated in this project have in place to serve warrants.

More complete details regarding these recommendations are contained within this report.

The time has come to move the issue of outstanding warrants to the forefront of the public safety agenda. The concern of traffic safety professionals across the entire system should be to properly identify any problem within local jurisdictions and to not allow DWI cases to be pushed to the bottom of the outstanding warrant list, such has been happening. Local agencies should be encouraged to take active measures toward dealing with this issue and should be provided as much assistance as possible from funding organizations.

This study has focused on an area which has previously been given very little scrutiny, and the lack of attention is disturbing. The number of outstanding DWI warrants nationwide is not known, but our findings in several jurisdictions at the state and local levels suggest a figure of several million or more. This means untold numbers of absconders and defaulters are using a large loophole in the adjudication and sanctioning processes in jurisdictions across the country. It certainly seems that many offenders who continue to drive while intoxicated or under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, have simply ignored the system, thereby rendering it less effective in its efforts to safeguard the public. This leaves the door open for abuses and recurring instances of illegal behavior, which are dangerous to everyone on the roadways.