Civilian Warrants and Mass Incarceration

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North Carolina’s Civilian Warrant Process

As more attention is devoted to mass incarceration, many advocates are calling for the decriminalization of certain offenses, non-enforcement of some existing criminal statutes, and halting the extensive law enforcement operations present in the public school system. Yet many commentators overlook the civilian warrant process and its substantial contribution to mass incarceration in North Carolina.

What exactly is a civilian warrant?

In fact, there is no such thing as a “civilian warrant.” Neither the term “civilian warrant” nor any other colloquial variation have ever appeared anywhere in the North Carolina General Statutes. Stakeholders created the term to describe the unique process where a private citizen initiates a warrant against another citizen. Civilian warrants do not differ from general warrants in any manner other than the fact that the initiator is a private citizen and not law enforcement.

Impact on the Community: Civilian Warrants in Practice

The civilian warrant process poses significant challenges in several respects. First, the range of charges is overly broad. Second, the possible case outcomes are incredibly limited and usually do not serve the interests of justice. Finally, the process lends itself to over-criminalization and contributes directly to mass incarceration, especially amongst low-income communities.

Broad Range of Charges

In the current system, any person may make a request to the magistrate for a civilian warrant for any one of a wide variety of charges. Mostcharges relate to interpersonal disputes and property offenses. For example: Communicating Threats; Simple Assault (includes Assault on a Female); Cyberstalking; Threatening/Harassing Phone Calls; Domestic Criminal Trespass; Domestic Violence Protective Order Violation; Injury to Personal Property; Misdemeanor Larceny; Simple Worthless Check; Failure to Return Rental Property; Shoplifting, etc. Many of these charges disproportionately affect persons of lower socioeconomic status. For example, the charges of simple worthless check and failure to return rental property (to a rent-to-buy business) disproportionately impact low-income individuals. Consequently, civilian warrants (and the resulting arrests) contribute to the over-burdening of the public defender system and of private attorneys who take on indigent defendants.

Poor Case Outcomes: Dismissals, Frivolous Warrants, Frequent Fliers, and Fairness

The civilian warrant process is plagued by poor case outcomes. Attorneys cite several frequent pathways for civilian warrants:

  1. Victim or witness does not appear - Dismissal
  2. Court-ordered mediation - Dismissal
  3. Deferred prosecution

In each of the scenarios, cases tend to be prolonged–-draining court resources and occupying valuable attorney time.

Scenario 1: Cases are often continued for several court dates in the hopes that the state’s witness who filed the civilian warrant appears. In many cases, the witness does not appear and the case is ultimately dismissed. However, the charge will remain on the defendant’s record.

Scenario 2: Here, the victim does appear in court, and the prosecutor arranges court-ordered mediation. This typically involves a $100.00 cost to the defendant ($40.00 for mediation and $60.00 in court costs). Mediation frequently results in a dismissal of the charge after the two parties come to an understanding with the court-appointed mediator.

Scenario 3: Defendant is offered a deferred prosecution. A deferred prosecution is described as “punishment without conviction.” However, the defendant may face punishment if she violates the agreement reached with the prosecutor

There is the overarching perception within the court system that the civilian warrant system is inherently unfair. Many professionals involved in the process consider frivolous warrantsand “frequent fliers” to be the greatest drawbacks to the civilian warrant process. Frivolous civilian warrants are warrants that are fabricated, usually in a retaliatory manner by a witness or victim. The witness or victim provides faulty information or exaggerates the facts in order to pass the low bar of “probable cause” and a magistrate issues the warrant. These warrants tend to involve interpersonal disputes that could be resolved extra-judicially. Frequent fliers are individuals who repeatedly seek and are successfully granted civilian warrants. Frequent fliers are often associated with frivolous warrants and are perceived as the biggest contributor to frivolous warrants. The perceived issues with the civilian warrant process is not unique to criminal defense attorneys. Many prosecutors, law enforcement officers, and judges share the same concerns regarding endemic civilian warrant abuse.

The Process: Over-criminalization and Mass Incarceration of the Poor

There are multiple reasons that civilian warrants are more frequently issued by and against persons of low socioeconomic status. For one, the fact that civilian warrants exist is not common knowledge amongst middle and upper class individuals, perhaps with the exception of parties to domestic violence crimes. Additionally, there is justifiable skepticism about the efficacy of law enforcement amongst community members in low-income communities. Many individuals will not call law enforcement for interpersonal disputes and will proceed to the magistrate’s office first. In the event that someone does call law enforcement, law enforcement officers (who are inundated with minor offenses) oftentimes prefer not to conduct investigation into petty crimes. Consequently, officers frequently refer individuals to magistrates. Finally, as described earlier, several of the civilian warrant crimes affect low-income individuals nearly exclusively.

Compounded by the disproportionate issuance of civilian warrants in poorer communities, inadequate case outcomes have particularly grave impacts on indigent defendants. Although most of the crimes eligible for issuance through civilian warrants are misdemeanors, they carry highly negative connotations by name, despite being considered minor offenses. Even after a dismissal or a not-guilty verdict, the charges remain on the defendant’s record. Collateral consequences of these charges can be steep, including barriers to post-secondary education, employment, and housing. Additionally, charges may have intangible consequences on one’s self-esteem due to the stigma associated with crime and “criminals” generally.

Looking for Reform

Although the civilian warrant system is plagued with multiple issues, North Carolina’s current system is not without its supporters. For example, many supporters have found these warrants particularly useful in their civil and criminal application as a means of preventing and combating domestic abuse. Domestic violence advocates have successfully lobbied for the inclusion of cross-warrants in recent amendments to the North Carolina General Statutes. Likewise, supporters have also found that in communities where law enforcement declines to pursue thorough investigations, civilian warrants have allowed some protection for community members in property and person.

It remains to be seen whether these beneficial outcomes justify the large expenditure of resources and perceived abuse associated with the civilian warrant system. More research into the efficiency of the process via Indigent Defense Services and investigative journalism could aid in the development of alternative processes. It may also be helpful to look at the reforms instituted in Mecklenburg County. Ultimately, the criminal justice system is only as virtuous as its capacity to ensure procedural fairness and consistent results, and for the people most vulnerable to the abuse of the State’s power.


Posted by Alissa M. Ellis on Tue. February 11, 2014 11:04 AM
Categories: Captive Audience: Incarceration and the Family

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