published Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Justice delayed

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    Staff photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press Hamilton County Detective Ken Cox fills out paperwork after failing to find Savannah Downs, who is wanted on seven warrants for a variety of charges, at her parents' North Chattanooga home on Wednesday.

Some walk into the jail and turn themselves in.

Many get dragged to jail in the back of a police car.

And others never will be caught.

Thousands of fugitives are wanted in Hamilton County, some dating back decades. As of Friday, there were 18,746 active criminal warrants for the county through numerous law enforcement agencies said Lt. Mark Hooper of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office fugitive unit.

The charges range from issuing worthless checks to murder. The county’s oldest unserved warrant dates to January 1989 for aggravated sexual battery, he said.

“We’re trying to get the numbers down,” Hooper said.

But that’s a tall order.

On average, about 1,200 warrants are issued every month in Hamilton County, far more than are served, Hooper said.

In 2010, 12,861 new warrants were issued in the county and law officers served 7,329. There were 925 recalled for various reasons — the person died, the warrant was issued in error or the person’s attorney provided the court with grounds for its dismissal.

About 4,000 warrants carried over into this year, he said.

“The problem we have is that they are never at the address they give you in an arrest report or warrant,” Hooper said. “You spend a lot of time chasing addresses.”

And career criminals are experienced at evading authorities, frequently moving around to avoid capture, he added.

So every year, the backlog grows, an issue faced by law enforcement nationwide. Given the sheer volume of warrants, finding the wanted men and women becomes a matter of resources and priorities.

Law enforcement uses a wide variety of resources to track people down, including personal tips from friends or informants, computer checks, national crime databases and other law enforcement agencies, including the TBI and the FBI.

The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office has 10 detectives who work full time finding fugitives. One is assigned to a drug task force and two others handle child support cases. The other seven go after everyone else.

And that can mean leaving the state.

“We are constantly picking up people from all over the U.S.,” Hooper said.

Recently, detectives were sent to Texas, New Jersey and Arkansas looking for people wanted in Hamilton County, he said.

The Chattanooga Police Department’s fugitive unit has four detectives.

In general, investigators use their resources to search for the most serious offenders, Hooper said. The less serious the crime, the less likely investigators will be able to travel across state lines to make an arrest, he said.

Hamilton County isn’t alone in its warrants backlog, even in Tennessee.

BY THE NUMBERS

Out of 18,746 active warrants in Hamilton County, the following are the approximate number outstanding for the most violent felony charges.

Kidnapping — 2

Homicide/attempted homicide — 4

Rape — 9

Robbery — 18

Assault/aggravated assault — 400

Source: Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office

Shelby County has about 32,000 open warrants, according to the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. The Metro Police Department in Nashville has 34,563, with an additional 200 warrants from Davidson County that had not been entered into the system as of Friday.

Hooper, who took over the Hamilton County unit in August, hopes to lower the number of active warrants by reviewing older cases with the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office to see if they are still prosecutable.

The older the case, the more challenging it can be to prosecute even if the person is located today, said Hamilton County District Attorney General Bill Cox.

“The problem becomes: Can you prosecute a case that’s 18 years old?” he said. “There’s all sorts of issues. Do the witnesses still exist? If you get a misdemeanor that old, it’s doubtful you would be able to prosecute that case.”

Cases that involve serious injury or criminal offenses still should be pursued no matter the age of the warrant, Cox said.

Felonies account for about 25 percent of the warrants, Hooper estimated, while the rest are misdemeanors.

“Obviously, the fact that they haven’t been served is an indication they are not the most serious of crimes,” Cox said.

Aside from witnesses being available in cases that date back as far as 22 years, many officers who worked those cases are no longer here.

“You’ve had officers retire. Some of the officers have died,” Hooper said.

It’s unclear how long it will take to evaluate Hamilton County’s warrants to see which are worth pursuing.

“You’ll have to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis if and when they [suspects] are ever found,” Cox said.

The county also hopes to acquire new software this year that will make information sharing and warrant details more accessible among law enforcement agencies, Hooper said.

“We’re trying to make it a more streamlined system,” he said.

County and state authorities said detailed figures are not available that break down warrants by the year they were issued, by felony and misdemeanor or by the number of fugitives, because one person might have several warrants.

Felony warrants routinely are entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database, officials say. Statewide, 24,307 warrants were entered into database as of Friday, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

chasing leads

Inside the fugitive unit at the sheriff’s office, maps of states cover the walls and a storage closet is full of files representing the number of wanted people.

Aside from looking at older cases and chasing down fresh leads, investigators routinely go through suspects’ Social Security numbers just to make sure they’re still alive.

“Yesterday, I probably cleared out 15 warrants for dead people,” Hooper said.

And there are numerous homeless people who have warrants.

“Basically, they are impossible to find,” Hooper said.

Sometimes, though, all it takes is a tip.

“A lot of times you piss someone off and they know you have warrants,” Hooper said. “A lot of times, it’s ex-wives, ex-girlfriends, current girlfriends. They get mad at you.”

On the Web

Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office routinely features the county’s 12 most wanted fugitives, asking for the public’s help to locate them. To see the top 12, visit http://www.hcsheriff.gov/most_wanted/most_wanted.php.

Right2Know

Go to Right2Know to see photos and details on the latest suspects arrested in Hamilton County.

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