Out on the fly: Iowa authorities struggle with warrants
By Regina Zilbermints
David Hodges isn’t in prison. He’s not in jail. He didn’t sit through a trial, and he didn’t plead his case before a judge or jury.
Six years ago, police charged the then-Coralville resident with viewing child pornography on a University of Iowa computer. His trial was set, then reset, then reset again. A judge denied a motion to throw out the case. In January 2007, Hodges, who had been convicted of same crime in 2003, failed to appear for his pretrial conference.
Law-enforcement officials haven’t seen him since — and that’s not unusual. State data and interviews with law-enforcement officials reveal a system lacking the budget and manpower to adequately deal with fugitives. Among the more staggering numbers:
- More than 51,500 people have outstanding warrants issued by Iowa law-enforcement agencies.
- More than 5,000 of those are for felonies.
- In Johnson County, authorities are looking for more than 3,000 people, or almost 3 percent of the county’s population. In neighboring Linn County, officials are missing 2,915 suspects.
The warrants include past-due speeding tickets and people who fail to appear for minor alcohol offenses. But among the numbers also lurk wife beaters and child molesters, thieves and drugs peddlers, and drunk drivers.
Law-enforcement agencies in Iowa say they actively pursue those they consider an immediate public threat — such as rapists, kidnappers, and murderers. But faced with staff shortages and budget crunches, officials say, they simply can’t devote resources specifically to pursuing everyone with a warrant.
“We take all warrants seriously,” said Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner. “It’s not like we turn a blind eye to warrants that come into our possession. We just have to prioritize them.”
But the state’s numbers have been growing. While they fluctuate day-to-day, they increased by almost 5 percent — from 50,870 on Dec. 1, 2005, to 53,360 on Dec. 1, 2010 — before falling to 51,583 on May 1.
During that time, the state’s population grew by 3 percent.
“Sometimes, we never find them,” said Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek. “But I’ve also heard of people being found years and years after the warrant is entered.”
Law-enforcement agencies in Iowa attempt to track down fugitives using a priority system based on the severity of the crime and the freshness of the warrant.
“We try to do the best we can, with the manpower that we have, to get people with warrants arrested and get those warrants cleared out,” said Pottawatamie County Sheriff Jefferey Danker.
All agencies — including police departments, sheriffs’ offices, and local branches of federal agencies such as the U.S. Marshals — work to serve warrants. But only when they have time.
Each agency is fairly consistent in its basic protocol. When a judge issues a warrant, officers will attempt to serve the document. If an investigator has been working on the case, that person may try to serve the warrant her- or himself.
And serving warrants quickly is vital.
“You have to jump on them real quick,” said Washington County, Pa., Sheriff Samuel Romano, whose office maintains a six-person squad exclusively for dealing with warrants. “Once they find out you’re looking for them, they’re like rats. They run and hide.”
In many cases, officers are successful. People with warrants for minor infractions — some of whom didn’t realize the warrant existed — are likely to take care of the fine or court appearance immediately. Officers might find others at the last-known home or work address listed.
All warrants are also entered into a national database, kept with AGENCY, which officers use to check the names of all suspects, complainants, and witnesses they come in contact with — often through traffic stops.
“Usually, there’s a reason you have a warrant; usually, you’re making bad decisions,” said Iowa City police Sgt. Denise Brotherton. “For a lot of warrants, people will have contact with law enforcement down the line.”
The difficulties for law enforcement begin when those routine steps don’t work. Sometimes, people have moved homes or changed jobs. Sometimes, they’ve left the jurisdiction.
Hodges, the man charged with child pornography, has two addresses listed in his court file. No one answered the door at either of them. In the Iowa Sex-Offender Registry, he is listed as “whereabouts unconfirmed.”
“There are certainly people out there who we are unable to track down. Some people, we just aren’t going to find,” Gardner said. “We do actively search for people who have outstanding warrants in the county. Hopefully, we take care of the issue.”
If authorities can’t find a suspect at a last-known address, they’ll issue an alert for the person’s car and will use family, friends, or other known associates. How long authorities pursue those leads generally depends on the severity of the crime.
Law-enforcement officials typically set the warrants aside unless new information surfaces.
Money and manpower
Even the Iowa agencies most focused on catching fugitives must rely on patrol deputies and officers to deal with warrants in addition to responding to routine calls.
“Officers are busy with other calls,” said Dubuque police Lt. Scott Baxter. “Other calls for service take priority, but if it’s a slow day and the officer is looking for something to do, he or she will look for warrants. Especially with more serious or more recent warrants — those will draw more attention.”
Dubuque County had 1,943 active warrants on Dec. 1, 2010. Baxter said many officers will print a list of warrants to take with them on patrol.
Iowa officials agreed the reason behind the backlog boils down to two simple factors: money and manpower.
But other agencies have seen success with more focused warrant enforcement.
Washington County, Pa., is one, and The Daily Iowan flew to there in April for this story.
“You mean they don’t have a warrant squad? How do they catch anyone?” said Romano, the county’s sheriff. His belief was echoed — almost word for word — by others at the station. The 40-person office devotes six people to tracking warrants. While the officers haven’t eliminated the problem entirely, they have gone from approximately 7,000 back-logged warrants to around 5,000 over the last 15 years.
Of the officials for the 12 Iowa agencies interviewed for this story, none had a warrant squad or had heard of one in the state.
“Ultimately, it’s a budget issue,” said Ames police Cmdr. Jim Robinson. “I’d say that’s probably the same for most departments.”
Pulkrabek said Johnson County simply doesn’t have enough people for such an effort.
“We don’t have the resources for that,” he said. “We’re trying to keep up with getting our patrol division to level, plus the jail division, too. That would be in an ideal world … We have a lot of other priorities.”
The limited resources force law-enforcement officials to decide on priorities, given the seriousness of warrants. But no one could define the way they draw the line on which ones to no longer pursue — it’s a “case by case basis,” they said.
In 2010, police arrested Mohamed Elkamil for allegedly breaking into Scheels through its skylight and, with an accomplice, reportedly stealing 17 handguns valued at more than $11,000. The other man pleaded guilty, and Elkamil was released on bond.
Johnson County prosecutors asked a judge to hold the 20-year-old in jail because they considered him a flight risk. A judge agreed, but it was too late.
Officials haven’t been able to find Elkamil despite a warrant for his arrest. A knock at his apartment door went unanswered.
On a recent Friday, two members of the Pennsylvania warrant squad had a mission. It was 10 a.m., and the officers had located and arrested two people. Their next target was a husband and wife — she owed $3,000 in restitution and court costs, and he had reportedly missed hearings for several charges, including receiving stolen property, reckless driving, and failing to stop at the scene of an accident. They had both allegedly fled to Texas, but deputies heard they had returned.
Cpl. Frank Konek and Deputy Al Marcy went from one residence to the next. Driving an unmarked car but clad in bullet-proof vests with the words “warrant squad” prominently stamped on the back and armed with guns, Tasers, and pepper spray, they visited what they believed was the couple’s home. Using tips from family, a towing company, and maintenance workers at a nearby apartment complex, they talked to friends the couple had reportedly visited, stayed with, and spoken to in the last few days.
They were tailed throughout by two deputies from the department’s drug task force, in a marked car, to transport the fugitives to jail and provide backup.
Finally, after four hours — and a promise of a solid tip the next day — they moved on to the next cases: a mother who failed to attend mandatory alcohol classes and a man who had allegedly violated parole. They arrested the woman but couldn’t find the man.
“A lot of people ask, ‘You’re chasing people around who owe a couple dollars?’ They don’t know the big picture. A lot of it is restitution,” Konek said. “At least you can give [victims] the satisfaction of putting [offenders] in jail and at least trying to get a little money. You’ll never get it back, but these people need to be dealt with.”
Ultimately, officials said, it is about the message the warrant squad sends.
“Probably the biggest thing is apprehending these people after they think they can get away with it — bringing them to justice,” Konek said.
Authorities in Washington County track people using prescription drugs, credit cards, and welfare aid, Romano said. They might load a car with pizza boxes so fugitives don’t realize who they are.
They need to be ready for people armed with drugs, knives, and guns.
But although Romano and every member of the squad is quick to bring up a high-profile catch — such as the three homicide warrants they served the previous month — they all acknowledge a lot of their work focuses on misdemeanor warrants.
But Washington County has a distinct advantage over most Iowa agencies: Its deputies don’t have patrol responsibilities, freeing the members up for special assignments such as drugs and warrants. And officials acknowledge the squad doesn’t really pay for itself — though the unit often grabs headlines.
West Des Moines police used to designate warrants as part of the special operations team’s responsibility. But four years ago, that team started shrinking. A supervisor once had four special-operations officers. Now, he monitors three traffic officers with no one designated for special operations.
Law-enforcement agencies across Iowa have adopted practices to help address the problem.
While they can’t afford a full-time warrant squad, many do “warrant sweeps” several times a year.
Sometimes, these are done in-house. A supervisor gathers some officers, gives them a set of warrants, and they spend several days doing nothing but tracking that list of people.
Others are done as part of coordinated efforts. “Operation Falcon” is a nationwide initiative, completed around once a year in individual locations involving local, county, state, and federal agencies.
Officials don’t have specific numbers, but they say such efforts have a high success rate.
Some agencies are also having luck using the Internet to engage the public in their efforts to find wanted individuals. Several departments have a “most wanted” section on their websites; ideally, officials hope, members of the public can look at photos and call police if they identify those individuals.
Baxter of Dubuque said his department has a 40 percent apprehension rate, or 16 arrests since it launched its website in February.
Numerous law-enforcement officials acknowledged the public-safety risk that arises when people with warrants are walking the streets. An explicit public threat generally prompts a thorough search for the subject. But that “risk” is difficult to define.
“Assault will be a high priority, and officers working cases will follow up, will try to get people picked up on violent crimes that threaten public safety,” Brotherton said. But she went on to say even nonviolent offenders continue to affect society. “A lot of times, victims in a case won’t receive justice until the person is picked up — crimes such as theft, forgery, narcotics. If someone is out there dealing, it affects families, children. There’s a lot more to it.”
Police departments in Iowa can list the crimes they’ve seen in the last few weeks. Officers in Dubuque are looking for people charged with domestic abuse, escape from custody, and burglary.
On April 29, Robinson had fresh warrants for willful injury, second-degree robbery, and third-degree burglary. Des Moines police had received new warrants for weapons charges, interference causing serious injury to a police officer, and possession of weapons after a high-speed car chase.
Warrants can run the gamut. Many bench warrants are issued for failure to appear and parole violations. And that, officials agree, can be a danger to society.
“If people have broken the law and are still out in society, there’s the possibility they could break the law again,” Robinson said.