City of Missoula makes wrongful arrests on invalid warrants

2013-01-27T07:00:00Z 2014-10-03T14:28:43Z City of Missoula makes wrongful arrests on invalid warrants missoulian.com

The city of Missoula has wrongfully arrested and even jailed people on illegal warrants issued over the past 10 years, according to multiple sources.

City officials say the incidents are rare and that Municipal Court has revised its procedures so it no longer issues bad warrants. The matter is a concern, said Judge Kathleen Jenks, but she knows of only a couple of people wrongfully detained on the invalid warrants.

“Really, there aren’t that many people getting picked up on old, illegal warrants,” Jenks said.

However, at least 2,000 questionable warrants remain active in a local database, and the precise total is difficult to calculate, according to Municipal Court. Jenks said the court does not have a deadline by which it will review the legal status of the old documents.

The number of potentially invalid warrants is a liability for the city and possibly even individual police officers, according to Jeff Renz, a lawyer and University of Montana School of Law professor familiar with the problem. And he said juries don’t look favorably on illegal arrests (see accompanying story).

“The volume of warrants poses an enormous risk for the city,” said Renz, who specializes in criminal defense. “I’d love to be the civil rights lawyer who brings the class action for those who have been wrongfully arrested and jailed.”

***

The protocol that led to the problem began under former Municipal Court Judge Don Louden, said Carrie Garber, a deputy city attorney who described the way some illegal warrants came about.

Say a minor pleads guilty to illegal possession of alcohol, she said. The court might order the offender to complete community service within a certain time period. If the person fails to meet that obligation, the court may issue a warrant.

The court’s jurisdiction over the defendant only lasts so long, though, and Municipal Court used to issue warrants after it no longer had authority to do so, she said.

At times, the court staff would generate stacks of warrants and the judge would sign them without review. Years later, the person once picked up as a minor might get stopped for a traffic violation and land in jail because of the old, invalid warrant.

In the worst-case scenario, a person is arrested on the weekend and remains in custody for two days because they can’t bail out, Garber said. The illegal warrants affect the people who are least able to pay a $50 or $200 bond; many people may not even know their arrest was improper, she said.

Garber said the practice took place for years, and she would not be surprised to find that “hundreds” of people went to jail because of it. When Judge Marie Andersen worked in the court, she started the practice of reviewing files before signing warrants, Garber said.

Garber said she tried unsuccessfully to encourage Louden to change the procedure, and she’s pleased Judge Jenks has done so.

“But I’m afraid it was so pervasive under him, I worry there’s many more still out there,” Garber said.

The police officer making the arrest has no way to know the arrest warrant is problematic, either, said Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir. According to Renz, a warrant is a court order, and police must follow it.

When an officer pulls over a suspect, the police will radio dispatch to check for “wants or warrants,” Muir said. If dispatch gets a hit, officers may see a “hit confirmation” on their patrol-car computer.

At the most, that hit confirmation shows police who is wanted, the date the warrant was issued, the jurisdiction that issued the warrant, the bond amount and conditions of extradition, Muir said. Officers won’t know if a warrant is invalid, he said, and in fact, they must rely on the database for being current and legal.

“When a warrant is issued, it is the court’s responsibility to ensure that it is valid at the time that it is issued,” Muir said. “And it’s also their responsibility to take them out if they become invalid.”

***

Judge Jenks has put in place a new procedure so Municipal Court no longer issues warrants after its jurisdiction has expired.

After reviewing some 3,000 or 4,000 old warrants, she has quashed an estimated 500, including legal ones that weren’t worth pursuing because of a person’s age, she said. Jenks also said the examination of old orders is taking longer than expected.

“I haven’t done as well as I would have hoped on that,” Jenks said.

It’s difficult to determine the exact number of old warrants left to review of the original total, which the court estimated at close to 8,000 or 8,800. The warrants go back 10 years, maybe more, and Jenks believes Judge Sam Warren also has reviewed an estimated 2,000 of them.

For the most part, the review must be done by a judge, and it’s work on top of the usual responsibilities of running the court, she said. She used to take home files at night, but she hasn’t in a while.

“Frankly, I work 50 hours most weeks, and that doesn’t include the warrants. So when I take home 150 warrants and spend the evening on them, at some point, I burn out,” Jenks said.

In some cases, the document backing up the warrant is a judge’s scribbled shorthand on the back of a police citation. Many courts used to keep records that way, but it means the former judge’s intentions weren’t always clear.

At worst, Jenks said, determining the legality of just one old warrant entails combing through a court file that’s two inches thick to look for orders from the court and notifications to the defendant. The process can take a couple of hours even with a set of supporting documents to review.

“It’s not that I don’t see these as a priority,” Jenks said. “But the guy that beat his wife last night is also a priority. And you know, the guys at the jail who have to have bond set and need to have somebody consider whether they can get out are a priority. Everything is a priority.”

***

Across the country, though, juries treat unlawful confinements as a priority, and even one incident can be a hit to taxpayers, according to UM professor Renz.

“These things are costly, and I am amazed at how seriously juries take these things,” Renz said.

A Florida jury awarded a man $225,000 for a false arrest and $100,000 for defamation for “several hours” of confinement in a 1999 case, he said. The settlement is typical, and awards in Montana are similar.

A jury in Missoula County ordered $21,000 be paid to a woman confined in the jail for four hours in 2008, Renz said. And a century earlier, another Montana jury awarded $500 to a Montanan who wrongfully spent 45 minutes in confinement; the court cut the award to $250, but it’s roughly $5,000 in 2005 dollars.

Renz said it might be cheaper for the city to put in an “extraordinary effort” and shore up the problem as soon as possible. The statute of limitations on suing for a wrongful jailing is three years from the date of arrest, and if a class-action suit were filed, the costs could escalate quickly, he said.

“The city would be compelled to identify everybody who had been arrested under a bad warrant,” Renz said.

Normally, police are immune for making wrongful arrests on faulty warrants because they are obeying court orders. However, Renz said officers might be individually liable in these cases because the city is aware of the problem and knows invalid warrants are still in the local database.

Chief Muir said he is aware of “sporadic” illegal arrests made because of database errors, but not the ones made on warrants issued improperly by Municipal Court.

Mayor John Engen said he’s only heard of two or three people being picked up, and he doesn’t believe the bad warrants have led to improper jailings because he would hear about those. He said he believes the problem is worse on paper.

“I think it’s a clerical issue that needed to be fixed, and I think they’ve been fixing it,” Engen said. “And I also think they have systems in place now. That’s the other piece, it is moving forward. They’re just not happening anymore.”

***

On occasion, prosecutors have asked Municipal Court to take action when they’ve spotted invalid warrants, said City Attorney Jim Nugent. In some cases, warrants need to be canceled simply because the person in question died, he said.

He isn’t aware of any recent arrests, and no one has sued the city over the matter, Nugent said. People may seek legal recourse if they believe their rights have been violated, but they must show they’ve been harmed, he said.

“They’d have to show damages,” Nugent said. “I don’t think a lot of money would be at issue because what’s their damages?”

In the past, Municipal Court even reimbursed people who had been wrongfully arrested but bailed out of jail, according to bondsman Allen Jackson. The incidents take place “once in a great while,” he said, but people weren’t out any money in the past because city coffers paid them back.

“If it cost 80 bucks to get them out, he (Judge Louden) would refund that person,” Jackson said.

Municipal Court administrator Tina Schmaus denies the practice is currently taking place.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

Copyright 2015 missoulian.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(13) Comments

  1. ELK
    Report Abuse
    ELK - January 29, 2013 12:00 pm
    I was sent a notice that a warrant would issued if I did not pay a fine for a traffic issue, I told them I took care of the ticket two years ago and asked for proof that I owed the fine, they sent me a photocopy of the ticket with a missmash of some sort of clerical hyrogrphics that they only understood. no way for me too despher and was told that there was nothing they could do so needless to say I payed the refine bad management and poorly trained clerks!
  2. live and let live
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    live and let live - January 28, 2013 6:09 pm
    Class Action lawsuit is appropriate. People have been harmed.
  3. Ski Jumper
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    Ski Jumper - January 28, 2013 5:04 pm
    Lets not forget that the City Attorney's office is responsible for a defendant to carry out their sentencing (community service, the ACT class for DUI's, etc.) not the court. The court is a neutral entity when it comes to compliance issues. It is the prosecuter responsibility to make sure the defendant's do the requirements of their sentencing. Unfortunately, this has not been done in Missoula Municipal Court for years. The CAO should be the ones informing the court of the need for a warrant, I believe, instead of the court issuing them. What would be ideal to catch the active warrants that shouldn't be active is to have whatever database they are coming out of be tweeked to not include warrants after so many years. What database is it that the officers look at to see a warrant when they pull you over? That is where the issue lies...following up on old warrants that shouldn't still be out there. Who manages that database and why can't they just cancel or delete warrants after a certain amount of time. They should be able to put in a certain search criteria and clear them. But, maybe Missoula hasn't caught up with modern technology. That would require money being WELL spent. Also, I haven't heard anything good coming out of Municipal Court in the way of "making things better". Sounds like it's still a mess and a debacle. Good luck, Missoulians, with the new management and procedures at Municipal Court. The warrant issue should be top priority but it still sounds like the money is. They should be losing some of that with all of the wrongful arrests that still DO happen.
  4. Missoulian
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    Missoulian - January 28, 2013 2:15 am
    I am glad to see that this is being brought to peoples attention. I have personally been arrested on NUMEROUS occasions for invalid outdated warrants. I had a warrant issued out of Ravalli county for "flickering headlights" ten years ago and two issued in Missoula for "studded snow tires" and "skidding through a stop sign" (these both occurred in the winter). All of these tickets occurred late at night (early morning) and were all dropped by the courts because they were unjust, the officers were obviously just bored and looking for something to do.

    Since these tickets were dropped (the day after I received them by the judge) I have been arrested on MULTIPLE occasions for warrants regarding these charges. The circumstances that lead to the "arrests" for these warrants were outrageous as well!

    On one occasion (about five years after the ticket had occurred and been dropped) I got a call from the police station. I had custody of my little sister (she was 17 at the time) and she had been picked up for a "minor in possession" charge. The officer said that I needed to come pick her up, I had my three year old son at the time and was babysitting my niece so I was unable to. The officer agreed to drive all the way across town to bring her to me, which I thought was great at the time. When he arrived he told me that I needed to make sure there was another adult to stay with the children so that I could go sign release papers. My adult sister agreed to stay with the kids at this time, but then the officer told me that I was under arrest for a warrant out of Ravalli county (flickering headlights). He was very rude at this point and arrested me in front of my child and the entire neighborhood. After I was booked I was able to "bond out" (with a fee of course) then had to go to court in Hamilton to get the warrant "quashed" again and pay new "court surcharges".

    A few years later I was pulled over for "skidding through a stop sign". It had snowed a lot the night before and the roads had frozen over night. I actually tried stopping 1/2 block before the sign but still skidded (about 5 feet past it). This time I had the same warrant out of Ravalli county and one from Missoula for studded snow tires. Again at this time I was arrested and had to "bond out" as well as pay the "towing fees" for my car. I had to go to court in Missoula for the warrant regarding the snow tire ticket (again) and the new charge regarding the stop sign. While sitting in court, every person in there that day was appearing for tickets received at the same stop sign and because they were unable to stop either. The judge dismissed all tickets, and "quashed" my other warrant. I also had to go to court in Hamilton to get the initial warrant "quashed" again. Of course each time I still had to pay the court surcharges.

    Another time I was in the gas station, with my car in the parking lot. An officer was waiting by my vehicle for me. He proceeded to tell me that yet again I had a warrant for my arrest. He arrested me from the gas station parking lot (isn't that entrapment by the way? I wasn't breaking any laws). Again I had to pay to "bond out", "towing fees" and "court surcharges". There have been other instances for these same warrants but these are the three that I feel the officers were completely in the wrong, not just with the warrants, and arrests but with their initial reasons for running my name in the first place.

    I have also had my drivers license suspended on two occasions over these warrants and had to pay to have it reinstated again.

    It is not acceptable that as a "Law Abiding Citizen" I am constantly harassed by cops that have "nothing better to do", and a Justice system that can't seem to do their jobs in the first place. It is sad to me that as a "Law Abiding Citizen" I cringe every time I see an officer or police car!!!!!!!!!!
  5. libertarian
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    libertarian - January 27, 2013 8:11 pm
    Juries can always say no to these types of cases. Juries can judge law and fact, and vote according to their conscience. Juries don't have to follow the judge's instructions, nor can those serving on a jury be punished for their verdict.
  6. Alan Johnson
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    Alan Johnson - January 27, 2013 3:34 pm
    It's good the problem is being addressed. I guess I had no idea how bad court management was. Kudos to Judge Jenks for making the effort to turn things around.
  7. Fandango
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    Fandango - January 27, 2013 12:22 pm
    The whole "Justice" system is corrupt in that it's nothing more than a money-making proposition for the people within the system. They want you to get into trouble and stay in trouble because this is how they get paid. If you look at the Missoula County Jail Roster under "releases," there is a person that was arrested - as in THROWN IN JAIL for: 1. Not having a drivers license in their possession when pulled over, 2. Committing a Right of Way violation (a traffic ticket), and 3. Failure to carry and exhibit proof of liability insurance. Once thrown in jail, the person needs to post bail (if there is one). This costs money. Then, they need to see the judge, this costs money for the court fees. Next, there is a plea and sentencing - which always involves a fine.

    Depending on the circumstances, the defendant may hire an attorney - again, this costs money. If there are any mandated programs the person needs to attend, it costs money. Required evaluations or counseling? It costs even more money. Probation? You guessed it - money.

    Who's getting paid when someone gets into trouble with the law? (When I say trouble, I use the term loosely - trouble being defined as ending up on the radar of the court/legal system, often due to a clerical error). The people getting paid are: The police, the jailers, the bail bondsmen, the judges, the clerks, the defense attorneys and the prosecutors, the people running the mandatory programs - even the counselors who pretend to be your friend are getting paid.

    It's no surprise that there are outdated and illegal warrants in the system, either. The courts are a clerical nightmare. If you ever find yourself at the mercy of the "system" and are released from it, make sure you're proactive and double-check, even triple-check, that you're records are accurate and up-to-date with fines paid and any other mandated sentencing conditions. Your information will either not get entered into the system properly, or they will just not do it at all. Get signed receipts and any other proof that you've been completely compliant, because when you get a warrant issued for your arrest (for failure to comply), you'll have proof that you're not at fault and that they are ones who are incompetent.
  8. pushingback
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    pushingback - January 27, 2013 9:41 am
    This judge hasn't even been elected yet and it is clearly time to replace her. If a citizen's liberty is not the courts' upmost priority, then the constitution be damned. And yes, Mayor, you are very aware of this problem. The police also frequently arrest people with the same or similar names, and a not interested in making sure it is the right person.
  9. pam
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    pam - January 27, 2013 9:13 am
    The police are still not up to speed. I was stopped for speeding (just a few weeks ago)and the records showed I had a suspended license and I was cuffed and went to jail. mug shots, prints. Very humiliating. I had to call my attorney. No apologies from the jail or the arresting officer. I was handed back my belongings and police dept acted like it was no big deal. It was though.
  10. Gman
    Report Abuse
    Gman - January 27, 2013 8:34 am
    I wonder if Jenks was one of the few, if she would feel the same way?
  11. maikeru1979
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    maikeru1979 - January 27, 2013 8:33 am
    i don't think i was ever picked up in Zoo count on a bad warrent but I do know for a fact that zoo county loves to ADD extra charges so they can legally arrest you happened to me back in 2002.

    was driving home Alone from work after a graveyard shift one April Morning maybe like 9-9:30 bright sunny beautiful morning. coming south Reserve street I was pulled over by a Hypo at Petsmart for a broken HEADLIGHT during the DAYLIGHT. headlights worked just fine even showed the cop. he stopped me because the LENS cover was broke, not because the headlight didn't work hell it was daylight and i had hit a deer the night before on my way to work.
    When he came up to my car window he told me he stopped me for a broken headlight. told him that they aren't broken it is 9 in the morning lights didn't need to be on. Turned them on to show him that YES they worked. Well was arrested on the spot for a broken lens cover, given broken headlight, 2 no seatbelt tickets, no insurance(which I had, just not with the card in the car) spent 7 hours in jail before they would even let me bond out.

    I know how crooked Judge Don Louden was and not surprised in the least to see this story come out.
  12. Deadwolf
    Report Abuse
    Deadwolf - January 27, 2013 2:48 am
    Hey whats wrong with that? It is another way to justify expanding prisons. Looks like by another $30 million. Make more "laws". Lock more people up. Then we need more prisons. When they are full, make more laws, lock more people up and then expand more prisons. They will really need to expand when "thought" laws are passed. The cycle continues unabated.
  13. hellgatenights
    Report Abuse
    hellgatenights - January 26, 2013 10:14 pm
    Yes, Ms. Garber, people did go to jail.....all the way to Deer Lodge, because of invalid warrants. I know of four people that could not walk out the door with out Johnny law picking them up.Two of them are from the res and two were foster kids.

    Missoula justice could add a few chapters to the "Man in the Iron Mask".........it was no mistake these warrants were left on the books, Ms. Garber is proof of that.
    @@@ The warrants served two purposes.
    One - They are used to gin money out of trumped up petty crime charges.
    Two - They gave Missoula police and prosecutors "Something to do." There is almost no violent crime here other than the dozens of reported rapes, and there is nothing for prosecutors to do. This is why they should be fired and just contract the work out to local firms. Let's start with stickboy McCubbin.........send him packin.
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