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Outdated warrant system in crosshairs

Dec. 08, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- The Huntington Police Department's patrol captain is threatening to order his officers to stop making arrests amid mounting frustration with a local warrant database he deemed unreliable.

His chief complaint involves a lack of up-to-date information in the database, which Mike Albers said constantly leads to his officers arresting people on already executed arrest warrants. He worries that could make the city liable should a defendant successfully claim false arrest.

"We're to the point where we can't (rely upon it)," Albers recently told members of the Cabell County 911 Advisory Board. "Pass this on to the Supreme Court or whoever, we're going to order them not to arrest unless they can physically verify and hold the warrant in their hand."

County officials estimate the local database is 20 years old. The system itself is doesn't stand as a legal record, but was designed to provide authorities with a quick, computer-based search of the paper warrant documents.

It depends upon someone in magistrate court notifying a data entry clerk, employed by the Cabell County Commission, to manually input new warrants. Updates require a similar process with someone in magistrate court notifying a deputy sheriff when an executed warrant should be removed from the system.

But the database isn't perfect, as noted by Albers and others in law enforcement.

Cabell County 911, whose dispatchers routinely search the database for area police, believe a solution lies in merging the county's database with a much newer, automated system managed by the state Supreme Court of Appeals.

The automated database opened statewide in January. It houses magistrate court warrants, both misdemeanor and felony, from every West Virginia county dating back to January 2012. State and Cabell officials admit its downfall is the lack of older records and the lack of warrants from the state's 31 circuit courts.

Angela D. Saunders, director of court services for the Supreme Court, said her office is open to discussing ways to merge magistrate warrants for previous years. She could offer no timetable for a database that incorporates circuit filings as each county runs its own system.

"We're very happy to just sit down, see what their issues are and if there is anything we can help them with," she said.

The county and state databases account for two of three systems routinely searched by dispatchers at Cabell County 911, said Steve Rutherford, the agency's support services coordinator.

Rutherford measures the state system's value through its automated, nearly real-time updates. Inaccuracies in the county database often spur local police to have dispatchers contact the court and verify a warrant's validity, a time-consuming process for both parties and the person being detained.

"They've just grown very frustrated," Rutherford said of the Huntington Police. "They're sitting and spinning their wheels with information that is inaccurate and invalid. So as a county, as 911, as law enforcement and as a whole we have to really highlight the importance of this and work together with the state to move forward as quick as we can."

Albers, whose comments came Nov. 14 at the Advisory Board's quarterly meeting, estimates his officers make an invalid arrest at least twice a week because of inaccuracies within the county database.

It happens far less often at the Cabell County Sheriff's Office and West Virginia State Police, although leaders at both agencies acknowledged their deputies and troopers make fewer arrests overall.

Cabell County Sheriff Tom McComas said his deputies generally have the freedom to hold off making an arrest until they are satisfied with the warrant's legitimacy. Sometimes that means they will release someone involved in a weekend or late-night incident, but ask them to check in during court hours to verify the records.

State Police Sgt. G.N. Losh said his troopers will call the courthouse themselves to verify a questionable warrant.

Various county officials were unable to name a precise reason for inaccuracies within the local database. Magistrate Clerk Paula Holley said assistants still list executed warrants for the Sheriff's Office, and Chief Deputy Doug Ferguson joined McComas in saying they were unaware of any change in the amount of executed warrant notices provided to their assigned deputy.

Follow Curtis Johnson at Facebook.com/curtisjohnsonHD and via Twitter @curtisjohnsonHD.

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