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, firstname.lastname@example.org or on MissoulaRedTape.com.