Hunting for Maine’s wanted criminals

Three years after changing the system, wireless warrants are growing across the state

By Mike Fern

AUGUSTA – There’s a certain mystique about outlaws. The early days of the Wild West gave us legendary bandits like Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid, whose exploits earned them never-ending pursuit and eventual deaths that usually marked the end for most frontier outlaws. The Prohibition and Depression eras of the ’20s and ’30s gave us notorious gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone, James Dillinger and the more locally famous Al Brady, all of whom faced a more robust U.S. law enforcement system including the Federal Bureau of Investigation that would eventually kill them or land them in prison. And since then the lore of more recent criminals like Boston’s mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, the mysterious air pirate D.B. Cooper and even international terrorist Osama Bin Laden would occupy a certain infamy in popular culture that has spawned a myriad of books, documentaries and feature films about the chase, capture or death of those who end up being the most wanted criminals in America.

So it seems like fugitives who are wanted for the most heinous of crimes get all the attention. Yet in law enforcement today, those cases occupy a tiny portion of the whole. Many more are wanted for everything from missing a court date or not paying a fine to the more serious felony offenses including burglary and motor vehicle theft. 

And searching for those in Maine who have a warrant for their arrest is a little different nowadays. Long gone are the old posters that would spark tales of lore and adorn the sides of buildings and walls of post offices. If you’re wanted for a crime, a missed hearing or even for failing to pay restitution, you’re part of a database that is accessible by local, state and federal authorities. And if police happen to encounter you, your luck just ran out.

Where all warrants are created equal

It doesn’t matter what someone is wanted for. It could be for something as simple as missing that court date for failing to register a dog to more serious offenses like theft or assault. Yet warrants for arrest are just that – somewhere along the way, a person has done something to initiate a criminal case against them or didn’t live up to responsibilities place upon them by the judicial system after their case is adjudicated. However, the way the State of Maine handles outstanding warrants changed in 2012. Gone are the days immortalized by TV and films where a police officer has a warrant in hand to arrest you. Today’s method involves a statewide system where court clerks manage the process of issuing or removing – known as recalling – electronic warrants, and law enforcement executes them by arresting the individuals and clearing them out of the system.

Known as the Maine Telecommunications and Routing Operations system, or METRO, the statewide communications system that has connected local police and dispatch centers with Maine State Police, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) – the national data center maintained by the FBI – facilitated the transition to paperless arrest warrants after passage of LD 1315 by the 125th Legislature in 2011. The bill sought the establishment of the statewide electronic database to increase accuracy and eliminate the duplicative paperwork often found in lower levels of government.

According to Dorothy Harrison, a state police analyst who manages the METRO system, the creation of the database was the logical next step in the process after the state consolidated data entry centers for paper warrant entry into the state database in the early 1990s.

“In the 16 counties the district attorney or attorney general had designated an agency to handle all warrants,” she said. While the Penobscot Regional Communications Center was chosen for Penobscot County, she explained that only Cumberland County still had multiple agencies handling it.

But that changed in February 2012 after passage of the law, and new rules were established by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to handle the new paperless warrants. The new process would move arrest warrant management from such data entering agencies into the state’s court system, which itself was under a transformation due to the Unified Criminal Docket program that folded the District and Superior courts into an integrated, single-layered system. UCD began in Cumberland County in 2009 and was largely completed throughout the state by July of this year.

“By statute for all warrants in Maine, the official repository is the electronic system at the court,” said Harrison. “The designing allowed for catastrophic events. If there was a computer malfunction electronically, a clerk can print a paper warrant and serve it.”

Harrison added that the implementation of the system was a collaborative effort between judges, district attorneys, court administrators and clerks, and law enforcement personnel who helped structure what the database would look like, set boundaries for it and establish rules of use and the level of access that would be granted to each agency. Once that was settled, it was up to programmers to create the system and roll it out statewide.

“The hardest part was importing the data and getting the data to match up,” she said.

Syncing agencies

Heather Hall, the criminal clerk supervisor at the Penobscot Unified Court, agreed that the implementation was the most difficult part. In recalling that time, she said it took a couple of attempts to make sure the data was in sync with the old system.

“They rolled it out and everything seemed to be working well, but then there was a glitch in the system so there was actually a few weekends that we had to come in and get them all reentered because they hadn’t gone over the correct way previously,” Hall said. “We had to come in and work to get those all put in in a timely manner so they were back out in the system.”

When a warrant is entered into METRO, Hall said Maine law enforcement agencies have immediate access to it, whether it’s at the regional dispatch centers or on the mobile data terminals in police cruisers as part of the integrated driver’s license check process. What’s more notable for her is the elimination of duplicate entry into two separate systems to move the warrant to the field.

“Back when we were doing the paper warrants, we used to have to take them over to dispatch and they had to sign for them. They then had to enter it into the system,” she said, adding that court clerks had always been the starting point of the arrest warrant process since all warrants need authorization and are ultimately issued by a judge. “If someone came in and paid off their fine, we would go in and recall it through our system, but then we also would have to call dispatch so that they would take it out of theirs.”

With a streamlined process to move warrants directly to law enforcement agencies, Hall said the communication process from agencies back to the court system also improved. Her office no longer has to wait to receive a physical copy showing that a warrant has been satisfied.

“We had a lot of pieces back with the old paper warrants where [warrants] could have been executed, but we didn’t get anything back from the police departments or from dispatch showing that it had executed, so we’d have to contact them to get a copy of it,” she said. “We no longer have to wait for the police or sheriff’s departments to know that someone was arrested. It is pretty much instantaneous.”

A black and white issue

When a police officer encounters someone on the street, it could be for any number of reasons. Whether the person is the subject of a complaint, involved in a car accident, exhibiting suspicious behavior or even simply not using a turn signal, law enforcement comes across a lot of people over a wealth of situations in any given day.

And checking whether a person has a warrant depends upon the circumstances. In some instances, it’s an obvious procedure as in the case of traffic stops where a driver’s license status is checked. However, sometimes a chance meeting will lead back to a person later on.

For Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton, such circumstances happen more often than you’d think.

“The chance encounters are high because there are so many warrants out there. When you go to a car crash, you’re not there to investigate [warrants]. You have three cars off the road, the guy in the back seat is a passenger and you need that person’s name for the report,” he said. “I’m not going to automatically run that person through METRO just to see if there’s a warrant – we don’t really have any reason to.”

However, Morton said names of those involved in an accident will eventually be run through the state database as part of standard police procedure when accident reports are processed. Sometimes, it’s discovered after the fact that witnesses or bystanders will have an outstanding arrest warrant.

“But then you didn’t know that,” he said, referring to the accident scene. “Those chance encounters happen a lot.”

Yet when police do come across someone with a warrant and know about it, there’s no wiggle room as to what comes next, regardless of whether it’s for an unpaid fine or even if it’s 10 years old. The person must be arrested and booked into the county jail, which sometimes leads to quite a crowd in custody over the weekend.

According to Sgt. Tim Cotton, a spokesman for the Bangor Police Department, the chance of finding people who have outstanding warrants is much higher for their department since the city is a nexus for a lot of people who come to work, shop or simply visit a bar downtown, especially on weekends.

“We’re in a service center community where a lot of people are here in the daytime, so if you compare our warrant arrests to other agencies, we’re going to be a lot higher,” he said. “You don’t see those people in Hampden or Glenburn – you see those people more in Bangor because they’re here.”

Averaging five or six warrant arrests a day and sometimes more on the weekends, Cotton said many of the warrants are for failing to appear at a court hearing or for not paying fines. It doesn’t matter, though, as the result is the same either way.

“There’s a lot of talk about overloading the jails, but when we see that a person has a warrant, we can’t let them go,” he said. “We have the duty to arrest.”

Will Sheehan, the chief deputy for Penobscot County, agrees that officers don’t have much leeway, but he sees an increasing problem in the number of people who are wanted for court-related offenses that end up stressing an already overcrowded jail system instead of those wanted for more serious crimes.

“What we run into now is there are a ton of warrants for unpaid fines – that’s a huge problem,” he said, adding that in some cases people owe thousands of dollars and fall so far behind that they get into a cycle of ending up in PCJ multiple times. “When agencies go out and look for fail to pay warrants on a Friday night and you know they’re all going to be there until Monday morning, certainly that’s hard for the jail. If they have a warrant, they have to be arrested. But when I put my jail hat on, do these people really need to be here?”

We can’t do that anymore

When paper arrest warrants were entered by the Penobscot Regional Communications Center, data was indexed by their integrated public safety software system licensed from Salt Lake City-based Spillman Technologies. With features like enhanced 911, computer-aided dispatch, jail administration and mobile data platforms, the system is a comprehensive suite of modules that can serve any type of first-responder agency. With the exception of warrants, it is still in use by most police departments in Penobscot County. While state police use a different system, they can access it and most local and county agencies share information across the platform.

Sheehan said the Spillman system used to provide much more background data about those with an active arrest warrant, including whether the person was a violent offender or had specific protection from abuse orders. Since the paper warrants were entered and kept right at the dispatch center, law enforcement could easily find out if a person had multiple warrants outstanding or query the system for certain types of warrants for targeted enforcement.

However, Sheehan said many agencies lost access to much of that information and accessibility to the database itself when the state moved the function into the court system. The mobile data terminals in police cruisers only show if there is a warrant outstanding – not the details behind it. And with dispatch centers being the only agencies certified to have direct access to the database, police must rely on them to provide lists of warrants outstanding. Nowadays, such information is at the town level, and Sheehan said that’s often without much other data to go on.

“It certainly akes our job a lot tougher,” he said, adding that it requires a direct encounter with someone to sometimes get a serious offender off the street. “We’re not able to do that as effectively anymore. We’re not cleaning up the warrants like we used to.”

As the county-wide police force, Sheehan said his department has supplemental contracts to cover specific towns. Deputies covering such details would often run a list of outstanding warrants for the more serious offenses like felonies and domestic violence through the Spillman system and, with its greater detail, work it more proactively. Now, he says the new system’s lists require more steps to cross-reference its data and it often entails more time than what is available.

“Some are more proactive than others – it depends on the deputy. If there’s down time, we’ll make use of our time and go out and do bail checks or search for warrants. If we know there’s somebody out there that we’re looking for, we can still do that,” he said. “But it’s not as easy as doing a quick search and seeing there’s some felony warrants to go get these people.”

METRO’s Harrison disagrees and says that while the system is different than having the old paper warrants available, it provides ample data to law enforcement. However, the level of access granted to each agency may be different, and the information provided is simply more compartmentalized than it used to be due to privacy concerns and its specific target of warrants that are outstanding.

“When they had paper warrants, they felt like they could pull out the paper warrants and had something physical and not depend on something electronic. Giving that up is difficult because they felt they had more control,” she said. “It’s been a difficult transition for law enforcement to rely strictly on a non-paper process in some cases. However, we’ve been live since 2012, and I think everybody’s adjusted to it.”

Less crime, more backlog

Still, proactive police work involves hunting down people who are wanted by the judicial system. And according to METRO, there’s quite a few of them. When the system was implemented in 2012, METRO showed there were 37,339 active arrest warrants outstanding by August of that year, the month it was fully implemented. Today, that number has jumped to 38,704, an increase of nearly 4 percent.

While it might not seem like a large increase, consider the fact that the crime rate in Maine has dropped for three years in a row and by nearly 15 percent in 2014 alone, the largest decrease the state has seen in 40 years. With less crime and thereby fewer cases, it may seem unclear why the number of outstanding warrants has gone up, and whether the information in the database is accurate.

In fact, questions of accuracy do arise, and that is something that concerns not only law enforcement agencies but also R. Christopher Almy, Penobscot County’s district attorney. For him, one of the downfalls of the new process is the backlog of new or recalled warrants and the removal of bail conditions that are waiting to be entered into the system.

“The problems we run into are when somebody is picked up on a warrant and the warrant has been recalled or a person comes to court and appears, the judge sets bail and the person makes bail, but the clerk forgets to go back to the METRO and remove the warrant,” he said. “We have had people who have been arrested on warrants that are no longer in effect or have been arrested for bail violations for conditions that were no longer in effect.”

If there is an erroneous arrest, which Almy noted happens extremely rarely, and it happens at a time when the court system is closed, say a holiday, at night or during the weekend – the period when most arrests occur – that means the person may be held in jail for some time before the error is discovered. Almy can recall several Monday mornings after a weekend of activity where people who were booked into PCJ for outstanding warrants or violating bail conditions had old docket numbers that often led his staff to investigate and determine the arrest wasn’t valid.

“We call the court where the bail has been issued from and they say, ‘Oh, this is a mistake and we forgot to remove that from the computer.’ So this guy is sitting over at the County and shouldn’t be, so we call the jail and tell them to cut them loose.”

Although he was quick to point out that this occurs rarely, it does happen enough for him to believe it is a problem with the system, and for him it identifies an even greater issue regarding staffing, especially when it results in an awkward incident.

“It’s embarrassing for the court system. The [court] clerk sometimes get real upset when they find out an assistant has not done that,” he said. “Just like any human error, if they forget to put it in or forget to remove it, then you’ve got a problem.”

While his office does not handle arrest warrants that have to do with post-adjudication issues, such as failing to pay fines or restitution, it’s the failures to appear or ones tied to active cases that he’s most concerned about. When police agencies come to his office after conducting an investigation, sometimes the only thing preventing a suspect from actually being arrested is the backlog at the court clerk’s office.

“We take all the information that they have, create an affidavit, write the complaint, take it over to the court and ask for a warrant. Sometimes those requests for warrants will sit in the clerk’s office for a while before they add them into the METRO,” he said. “If we think there’s a case that we really need to get a push on, we’ll send either the cop who’s in charge of the case or Gary Higgins, our investigator, over to the window at the court and say, ‘Listen, this is a big case. Can you push this onto the METRO system as soon as you can?’ and then just wait at the window to confirm that it was done.”

Still, Almy can recall cases where warrants were requested and they sat there unprocessed for weeks, or where a judge issued a bench warrant because the person didn’t show up and it would take quite a bit of time for law enforcement to even see it. Much of it, he said, has to do with staffing.

“Let’s say today or sometime next week we have a case in court and the person doesn’t show up when they’re supposed to be there. They’ve been bailed or they’ve been summonsed and the lawyer doesn’t know where they are and a warrant is issued. In order for it to get into METRO, it has to go back from the courtroom and into the clerk’s office and sometimes it will be weeks before it gets entered into the system,” he said. “The cop is sitting in court and hears all this. He goes out on patrol that night and sees the guy and runs him and the warrant is not there. He can’t pick him up because it’s not in the system. It still depends upon the clerk issuing the warrant. If the clerk doesn’t do it and sits on it for a couple or three weeks, it’s just as if there was no warrant. That is a problem.”

Hall of Penobscot Unified Court admits that the accuracy and backlog for warrants are problems, and she said much of it is directly tied to staffing levels, especially when clerks are much more involved in the courtroom under the Unified Criminal Docket system than before. That hasn’t left much time to do the administrative work that used to get done in a more timely fashion.

“Some things should be recalled and it doesn’t because you’re so busy at the window. It definitely happens,” she said. “It’s just so hard to keep up with everything that we’re asked to do. It’s just a constant, everyday type of battle.”

Hall feels the solution is to hire more clerks, but she realizes that may not be possible due to budgetary constraints. Still, she said if someone does come in and needs a warrant right away, staff will work to get it issued immediately.

“A lot of times when we go into a courtroom to record, we’ll try to get them entered while we’re in the courtroom. It gives us a few minutes that we’re not working on something else at our desk,” she said. “But if someone comes in and says, ‘I know where this guy is. We need this right away,’ we’ll get it right in.”

Did we arrest him, or didn’t we?

Although Chief Deputy Sheehan agrees the backlog is a problem and has actually witnessed the missing bench warrant scenario outlined by Almy, he feels it’s the flow of information between the many law enforcement agencies across the state that has borne the brunt of the change. Previously, individuals who were wanted by several agencies simultaneously were often flagged in the Spillman system, and if that particular person was arrested by a particular agency, they would often contact the other. And, if a subject was arrested, it was documented for follow up and shown in the database.

That is not the case today, since warrants are cleared immediately from the system once they’re satisfied. And Sheehan said that, along with the backlog at the court clerk’s office, has led to some unintended consequences.

“We had a case just the other day where a deputy tried to search for this person who had charges pending. He tried to locate him and couldn’t find him so [the deputy] applied for an arrest warrant. This is the snag: Another agency arrested him,” he said. 

Sheehan explained that when the deputy returned to work after a few days off and checked METRO – unaware that the man had already been arrested – he found the warrant wasn’t there and chalked it up to the backlog in the court system. After eventually finding the man, the deputy ended up giving him a summons although he had already been arrested for the same charge.

“The man was erroneously summoned again for the outstanding warrant, as the deputy didn’t realize the warrant was in fact cleared – a detail that would have been logged in the former Spillman system,” Sheehan said. “But it was the lag that triggered the event.”

Sheriff Morton said that while some of those issues stem from the loss of local control and the difficulties posed by the new system, some agencies may find the new system better. However, he feels more can be done to link METRO with local systems to help clean up the growing number of warrants that are outstanding and manage the law enforcement and judicial processes better. Still, he said proactively searching for those who are wanted may have more to do with the limited resources agencies have to properly investigate someone who doesn’t really want to be found.

“There is a challenge today for us that with the amount of calls you do – and it’s not just our agency, it’s everywhere – it’s harder and harder for a guy to say, ‘I’m going to take a list and work on those,’” he said. “When you’re searching a warrant list, you’re really doing some investigating because if was that easy, there wouldn’t be a warrant – somebody would have already arrested them. When you’re trying to track somebody, they don’t really turn themselves over to you.”

Citing instances where someone could have moved multiple times or in cases where the former system would provide more complete information, Morton feels METRO could do more to give a complete package of information about each individual who is wanted by authorities, something the Spillman system used to do.

“That is one of the crucial things we have to get better at. When the counties took on the Spillman licenses, it got every police department to buy into that,” he said. “The potential next steps are to make sure that METRO clearly connects to local databases that are used by jails or by local law enforcement so that warrants could be flagged to locate people, and it’s easy for law enforcement access.

“Right now there’s a process.”

Staff writer Katy England contributed to this story. To read the full article, click here