Electronic Warrant Management Program Doesn't Prevent Tragedies

Technology can work wonders, but only if the human will and understanding are there.

by / April 30, 1999
In 1994, Boston Police Officer Berisford Anderson, 37, stopped a driver going the wrong way down a street. A routine traffic stop. The driver shot Anderson in the chest, killing him. More than 3,500 people attended the funeral.

When it was learned that the driver was wanted on a warrant for failing to appear in court in another shooting case, and shouldn't have been on the streets at all, the state responded with a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week, computerized warrant database to prevent further such tragedies.

Problem solved? No. In 1997, 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley of Cambridge was brutally murdered by a man wanted on 75 warrants.

Justice in America is often a slow and cumbersome process. Technology, it is hoped, will help change that -- eliminating paperwork, creating searchable digitized files, putting the bad guys behind bars quicker and keeping them there, reducing administrative costs and helping citizens find justice within the system. But sometimes within large successes you can find failures, and in the justice system a breakdown can lead to death.

In 1994, Massachusetts was faced with a growing problem: Each day, district courts were issuing thousands of arrest warrants for everything from speeding to murder, and those warrants were adding to an unwieldy problem.

The state was already trying to manage a 350-year-old system that included hundreds of thousands of paper warrants filed in cabinets and boxes, searchable only like the Yellow Pages -- with your fingertips. The problem was violently underscored when the Boston police officer was slain during that routine traffic stop. The murderer, it later came out, was wanted on a default warrant related to another shooting.

Stunned by the avoidability of the tragedy, state officials moved quickly to enact the Warrant Reform Act, which mandated a statewide arrest-warrant database known as the Warrant Management System (WMS). While not the nation's first computerized warrant database, it was the first to provide realtime access as warrants were issued. The system is administered by the Criminal History
Systems Board, and warrants are entered when issued by district court clerks. The centralized database is accessible through every district court, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) and all law enforcement agencies.

Before the WMS, knowing whether a person was wanted outside a police officer's own jurisdiction was practically impossible. Now, an officer can check simply by querying the database. However, several new tragedies have highlighted failings of the WMS -- not of the technology, but of the process, statutes and state staff -- prompting a review by the same legislative body that first mandated its creation.

"When we revisited this issue, we knew we were light-years ahead of where we were four years ago," said Sen. Cheryl A. Jacques. "But we also knew that we were light-years from where we wanted and needed to be."

Jacques chaired the Judiciary Committee that first mandated the creation of the WMS and chairs the Post Audit and Oversight Committee re-examining the issue.

Tragedy Again, and Again

In many ways, it seems that the state is not far ahead of where it was with its antiquated paper system. The courts are still buried in a backlog of more than 275,000 outstanding warrants, a number swelling by about 5,000 each month, and the WMS is clogged with warrants because the system has not been utilized to its full potential.

More than two-thirds of all warrants are simple default warrants, issued solely because people skipped a court date or didn't pay a court-mandated fine. Though the capability is available, the WMS does not prioritize outstanding warrants, making it difficult for law enforcement to select which warrants to dedicate manpower to serving.

Also, while computers in each station can search the database, few field officers have laptops, so individuals that might be flagged during traffic stops and disturbance calls continue to slip through the net. In the final act of this tragedy, the BMV has all but thumbed its nose at the Legislature, refusing to follow parts of the original legislation requiring it to refuse to issue new or renewed driver's licenses to anyone with an outstanding warrant.

In the end, these problems mean that a man like Charles Jaynes, one of two men convicted of the murder of the 10-year-old boy, was walking the streets despite having 75 arrest warrants active against him.

"From all of the evidence we have, nobody was even looking for him. It wasn't that they couldn't find Jaynes, he just wasn't on anybody's radar screen," Jacques said.

Jaynes was not a fluke. Less than a month after Curley's murder, a mother of three, Annie Glenn, was shot and killed in Lowell, in northern Massachusetts, by an ex-boyfriend with outstanding warrants for serious crimes, including possession of cocaine and receiving stolen property.

Last summer, a 12-year-old girl was molested, allegedly by Gilberto Sanchez, a convicted sex offender with six outstanding warrants, including violating a restraining order, defaulting on drug charges and assault.

"We can use the system to prioritize these warrants; say, to flag those warrants that are for the most violent offenses or for those individuals that have the most outstanding number issued against them," said Rich Duggan, information technology director of the Massachusetts Trial Court. In fact, that was among several recommendations handed down by Jacques' oversight committee.

Changing the Process

"The system was too passive. There are a lot of other issues that need to be addressed, but at the root of the problem was a system that wasn't being used to work for us," Jacques said. "We have to use it to prioritize warrants. We need to pass legislation that will prevent wanted individuals from collecting state benefits or holding state-issued professional licenses, and our troopers need laptops in their patrol cars to make database searches quick and common."

These are just a few of the recommendations handed down by the panel, but even if all of their recommendations were turned into mandates, the question of compliance arises.

In the enacting legislation, the BMV was required to develop a system in which everyone applying for a new or renewed driver's license would be checked against the database. Four years later, only half that requirement is being met -- renewal applications are being checked through the WMS, but the three-level matching requirement BMV set is so high that the system has a low match rate.

"When we asked why the match rate is so low, the answer surprised us," Jacques said, noting that the bureau decided that it would not count a match unless the applicant's name, date of birth and Social Security number matched exactly what was listed on the warrant.

The senator noted that it is in criminals' best interest to provide inaccurate identifiers when arrested or called into court.

"Still, that answer was better than the one when I asked why they weren't at least doing that for new applications," Jacques said. "First, I was told that they didn't want to inconvenience the applicant, then, when pressed, they just said they didn't do it. I was shocked. They didn't even try to give me a gray-area answer, they just decided not to follow the direction."

While some recommendations can be implemented simply through money -- like outfitting state troopers with $20 million in laptops -- issues like the one raised by the BMV have less clear routes to resolution. As in many state governments, agencies like the BMV or social services have their own goals and standards. In some cases, certain agencies may even resist cooperating because of the
privacy issues an integrated system raises.

Still, Jacques is convinced that the WMS can become the cutting-edge system it was intended to be.

"The parties that brought this system online deserve a tremendous amount of credit: from paper to this was an amazing amount of effort. Now we have to step back and ask, 'How can we make it better?'" Jacques said. "In the beginning, everyone was so busy getting it up and running and keeping it up and running that there was no one to look at the big picture. That is what we hope this committee's report will accomplish."

Justice and Technology Editor Ray Dussault is also a research director for the Law Enforcement Technology Acquisition Project. Email