Jessica Mulholland is the associate editor of GOVERNING, and is also the associate editor of both Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.E-mail: email@example.com
Hawaii conjures up images of a slow-paced life, complete with palm trees, sandy beaches and Mai Tais. But slow isn’t good when it comes to traffic warrants. In the past, officers making a routine traffic stop could search for outstanding warrants, but they couldn’t serve them. Instead, if one popped up in the system, officers first had to call the station to verify that the paper warrant was still in the file cabinet and hadn’t been served. Then, they had to go back to the office to get a copy before they could try to issue the warrant to the person they’d just pulled over, says Courts Administrator Calvin Ching.
That process -- along with budget cuts, lack of personnel to serve the warrants and poor coordination among the three agencies that handle them (the courts, the sheriff’s office and the police department) -- created a backlog of more than 70,000 unserved warrants, equal to $20 million in lost revenue from unpaid speeding tickets.
To fix the problem, Hawaii launched its eBench Warrant System in 2009, which consolidates warrants into a centralized, statewide database. Hard copies of bench warrants have been replaced with electronic versions, giving officers in their patrol vehicles access to traffic warrant data 24/7. They can now serve them during routine traffic stops. In its first year, the new system helped reduce a backlog of 15,000 warrants. What previously took a team of deputies one week to do now takes officers just a few keystrokes.
“With everything in electronic format, the officers can call [the staff in] central receiving, who can go into the system and verify the warrant, and the sheriff can bring the individual into custody and serve them,” says Ching. “It makes information about warrant status and the availability to serve a lot faster.”
Warrants are generally served during periodic “sweeps,” where law enforcement targets specific geographic areas. Previously, the Sheriff Division staff spent hours sorting and grouping paper warrants by hand, but with the new system, a single sweep saves officers 40 hours of prep time, which is equal to more than $1,000 in labor per sweep.
“If they’re going on sweeps and they’re going to go down Lime Street, for instance, and they want to know how many warrants are issued to people living on Lime Street, they can find out where all the warrants are,” Ching says. “It’s not only access, but the ability to use the data for different law enforcement purposes.”
Since the system’s launch, the average number of arrests and warrants served per sweep have more than doubled. The state has invested more than $500,000 to develop the eBench Warrant system, which handles more than 20,000 warrants annually.
Ultimately, the process should get even easier. The Judiciary has plans to update its technology so that once courtroom clerks put a warrant into the system, it will immediately be available to law enforcement officers to serve, Ching says. “That’s how fine-tuned we’re going to be.”
Hawaii isn’t the only state to embed technology into its warrant system. Since 2008, Kentucky has been using its electronic warrant management system, known as eWarrants, to access and serve more than 250,000 warrants. The state claims it can serve 80 percent of its warrants now that they are electronic, versus less than 10 percent with the paper-based system. Where Hawaii’s system only generates traffic warrants, Kentucky tracks all kinds of warrants, enabling officers to serve them, such as emergency protective orders, to violent offenders immediately. Utah also has been using an electronic warrant system since 2008.
Hawaii is looking to expand its eBench Warrant process to cover criminal and grand jury warrants, too. Exactly when the State Judiciary starts that process, however, ultimately depends on how successful it is in implementing the first phase of its criminal module this June, which will deal only with criminal misdemeanor warrants.
Warrants in Kentucky have no expiration date or statute of limitations. A study conducted before the eWarrants system went live found that as a warrant ages, it becomes less likely to be served. The information contained on the warrant may become outdated, and law enforcement may become less willing to serve it because of liability concerns. That’s not the case in Hawaii, where the law states that if there’s no attempt to serve a warrant within two years of it being issued, then the entire case can be dismissed. “So the pressure is on to have these warrants served as much as possible,” says Ching.
As these systems evolve and more states adopt electronic warrant systems, judges will increasingly be reviewing and authorizing electronic warrants on smart phones or tablets, speeding up the process even more. That old adage about the wheels of justice grinding slowly may no longer be appropriate.