Bill would add fine in bench warrant arrests

People arrested by the Baton Rouge City Constable’s Office on a bench warrant will face an additional fine if legislators approve a bill being introduced for the upcoming session of the state Legislature.

The bill, if passed, would set a mandatory $35 charge for anyone the Constable’s Office arrests on a contempt of court bench warrant for failing to appear in court. The person would have to pay the fine before he could be released from jail, Baton Rouge City Constable Reginald Brown said.

He said state Sen. Sharon Weston Broome and state Rep. Dalton Honoré, both Baton Rouge Democrats, plan to introduce bills in their respective legislative chambers that would allow the additional fine to be charged for those arrested for failing to appear in court when scheduled.

The Constable’s Office is the “law enforcement arm of city court,” Brown said, and is responsible for finding and arresting people who have outstanding contempt of court bench warrants. But, he said, the office lacks a consistent revenue stream to cover the man-hours and other expenses incurred as a result of warrant operations.

Brown said he could not provide an estimate of how much money would be generated annually by the $35 fine. He said the office does not “collect enough fees for us to operate and work warrants like we do” and that the additional fine will just help to defray some of those costs.

The Constable’s Office can receive up to $75 from judges as “a warrant execution fee” when someone captured by the Constable’s Office appears in court, but that money is not guaranteed, Brown said. The judge could waive that fee, he said, leaving the Constable’s Office without monetary compensation for its troubles.

Capt. John Lawton, chief of operations for the Constable’s Office, said “the warrant execution fee is at the end of the collection chain” and sometimes, through plea bargains or credit for time served, the fee is reduced or ends up being waived.

Lawton said the Constable’s Office makes about 50 to 75 bench warrant arrests a month while employing only one full-time person to locate people with outstanding warrants. He said the job is “manpower intensive” and the Constable’s Office has asked the Metro Council to open two frozen deputy positions to help with the workload.

Baton Rouge City Prosecutor Lisa Freeman said the legislation is needed to combat what she called the “tremendous problem” of people failing to appear for their day in court. She said constables are constantly searching for people with bench warrants.

“This allows the Constable’s Office the direct benefit of working that warrant to find these fugitives and bring them in to address their criminal cases and their traffic tickets,” Freeman said.

The fine will be separate from any bond that is set, but would be one of the conditions for release, Freeman said.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said that, as of the end of March, there were more than 180,000 outstanding bench warrants in Baton Rouge for city and district court.

“I would surely like to see people come to court on their own, but right now that is not happening,” he said.

Moore said one reason for massive number of outstanding warrants, most of which are for misdemeanors and traffic citations, is the current system in which people are issued a summons for misdemeanors rather than being sent to jail.

If Baton Rouge had a misdemeanor jail where offenders would have to bond out, he said, that would provide an incentive for the offender to appear in court.

“If they had a bond, they would lose money and a bondsman would pick them up and bring them to court,” Moore said of people failing to appear in court.

City Court Judge Suzan S. Ponder agreed with Moore and others regarding suspects failing to appear in court.

She said on some days, such as days with a lot of DWIs, she may have to issue only a few contempt of court warrants for failing to appear. On the other hand, on a day full of arraignments and criminal trials, she said she may write bench warrants for half the cases on the docket.

“A lot of people think judges wave their magic wand and people come to court; they don’t,” Ponder said.