When 30-year-old Daniel Hurst was located by authorities, he had crashed his 1998 Jeep Cherokee into a ditch on Standifer Gap Road.
Reeking of alcohol, he failed field sobriety tests and was hit with his third DUI in six years. But he failed to show up for court and was later tracked to Anchorage, Alaska.
The cost to bring him back before a Hamilton County judge?
A little more than $4,300, which included expenses for two Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office detectives’ meals and lodging, according to county finance records.
And he’s not the first offender to be retrieved from Alaska to Chattanooga. In 2009, sheriff’s office detectives brought back Jeffrey Hollis Jensen, 46, who had violated custody rights when he took his 13-year-old son without permission from the mother. He was convicted of custodial interference, a felony that was pleaded down to a misdemeanor, as well as failing to appear, financial responsibility and driving on a revoked license, all misdemeanors.
The price tag for that trip came to $4,985, according to documents.
“Any time anybody fails to appear in court, that is serious. But when you’re going and spending $5,000 of taxpayers’ money to make trips like that, for DUI charges or custodial interference, I think you need to weigh out the gravity of the crime before you do it,” said Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry. “I think when you’re looking at a felony like murder, rape, robbery — something of that nature ... certainly you can see the importance of doing that.
“Certainly if you’re going to go after these people, I’m sure everybody wants to see justice served,” Henry said, “but to go to Alaska and spend $5,000 for a DUI charge, that seems quite excessive to me.”
In the 2009-10 fiscal year, the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office unit made about 200 out-of-town trips and spent $34,775 for hotels, meals and plane fares, according to the sheriff’s office annual report.
That figure increased in the 2010-11 fiscal year when the unit retrieved 397 offenders from out of town at a cost of $46,702.
It’s not necessarily the decision of the sheriff’s office which fugitives it pursues.
Sheriff Jim Hammond said that, unless it’s a felony DUI, deputies don’t often cross state lines to bring back defendants.
“We normally don’t, but if the D.A. says go, we get them. I’ve seen it happen before, and I’ve seen the case get dismissed,” Hammond said. “Generally, as a rule, for felonies it’s full extradition.”
What typically happens is a form is completed by the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office and submitted to the court, which decides whether an offender is to be brought back.
“If you have an outstanding felony indictment or warrant, it’s entered into [the National Crime Information Center], which is a nationwide database. Those felonies would call for full extradition,” said Executive Assistant District Attorney Neal Pinkston. “Generally, misdemeanors are [only extradited in] Tennessee, meaning if they’re found in Tennessee, or in surrounding states.
“Something like felony DUI, we would mandate extradition,” he said. “That’s probably failure to appear; that’s consistent. And sometimes, they may extradite in a misdemeanor domestic assault or misdemeanor DUI, depending on the circumstances.”
But there have been exceptions where the court has not sought extradition in felony cases, he said. For example, if a defendant is serving a federal prison sentence and has an open felony forgery case in Hamilton County.
“Sometimes you review those, and there’s a balancing process you go through to see if it’s necessary or not,” he said.
Henry wonders whether there should be more scrutiny on the process.
“These crimes may even be reduced to a misdemeanor; I don’t think you should spend that kind of money,” he said. “You’re certainly not going to get it recovered in those cases. That’s a real expense to the taxpayers to do that.”
As a part of Jensen’s sentence, he was ordered by Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman to pay back the sheriff’s office the cost for his extradition. To date, he has paid back $400, according to a letter from his probation officer.
Hurst is being held without bond. His next court date is set for March 26 before Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern.
Pinkston said there sometimes are requests for offenders to repay the county for the expense of the trip, but he could not specify how often that happens.
“I do believe there are times we have sought recouping expenses for things of that nature typically because it costs,” he said.