For Homeless Seattleites, a Reprieve From the Debilitating Burden of Warrants

People lacking a permanent addresses often don’t know when they are supposed to appear in court. And they don’t have the money to pay the fines that follow.

William became homeless about two years ago when his heroin addiction overtook his life. Last summer, two passing police officers found him and his girlfriend sitting in an alleyway in the International District. They ran his name through the system. He’d been in trouble with the law before, but William thought that his prior warrants had been resolved. “The next thing I know … they’re putting cuffs on me and saying, ‘you’ve got an outstanding warrant for not appearing in court,’ ” William, 46, says now in a raspy, squeaky voice.

The warrant was issued after William failed to attend the court-ordered Community Center for Alternative Programs, a program that offers offenders rehabilitative services. William said that prior to being arrested, he checked his mail regularly at the Compass Housing Alliance—an organization that provides mailing services for more than 2,000 people, most of whom are homeless—but that he never received notices to appear in court. He was perplexed.

“After you get arrested you’ve got bigger things to worry [about] than why you didn’t get some letter in the mail. You know what I mean?” Williams says. “That’s the last thing on your plate,” he added while periodically sipping on a cup of hot chocolate.

At the time, William thought it was simply a “clerical error” that would get sorted out, but he ended up in King County Jail for 12 days and racked up fines that put a greater strain on his limited finances. He says that his relationship and emotional health both suffered as a result.

William’s predicament is a common one for Seattle’s homeless. The Seattle Municipal Court’s staff and Public defenders say that many of the 9,794 defendants who currently have outstanding warrants lack permanent addresses because they’re homeless. As a result, many are unaware that they have been ordered to appear in court. As of December 2017, failure to appear for pre-trial hearings was listed as the top reason for the issuance of outstanding warrants, according to Seattle Municipal Court data acquired by Seattle Weekly. The court does not track housing status, so it is unable to confirm how many of them were homeless.

A cursory investigation of homeless support organizations revealed that outstanding warrants are having an impact on the homeless community. One staff worker at Roots Young Adult Shelter said many of the guests there have had outstanding warrants with no means to pay them and no information about how to challenge them.

At the Real Change office in the heart of Pioneer Square on a recent morning, at least two of the newspaper’s vendors in the office said that they had been arrested at least once before for missing court dates for misdemeanor offenses that then turned into outstanding warrants. Both, including William, said they had never received notices to appear at court through the mail or got them too late because they lacked a permanent address. Another middle-aged bearded man sitting nearby piped up to say that he’d probably had an outstanding warrant at one time, but he didn’t “really care.”

It’s all too easy for the homeless to receive citations for living in public spaces, which can result in outstanding warrants, increased jail time and fines. According to a 2014 National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty report that surveyed 187 cities over five years, 76 percent of cities prohibit panhandling in certain public places and 65 percent outlaw loitering and vagrancy in some public spaces. The warrants that often result from these laws can pose a barrier to housing and employment for those living in a state of homelessness, says Sara Rankin, the director of Seattle University School of Law’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project. The city has taken notice. In an attempt to address the issue of outstanding warrants, the city’s municipal court held a warrant outreach event in late November to help people address their outstanding warrants without fear of arrest.

At the November 30 Warrant Outreach Event, an arrow bearing the words “Seattle Municipal Court Warrant Outreach Event!” pointed to a large room in the back of the Yesler Community Center. Seattle Municipal Court staff and up to six public defenders from a few different King County Department of Public Defense agencies sat at white fold-up tables. Two court clerks greeted attendees at the front of the room and then researched their cases to discern available options. Warrants issued for lower level crimes or bench warrants for less than $2000 were administratively quashed. Court staff screened those remaining and assigned public defenders to low-income attendees unable to pay for their own attorney. Representatives from the court resource center also offered services that included assistance in signing up for food stamps, finding housing, or getting replacement IDs.

The event only drew about 20 people with outstanding warrants. The majority of the cases that the court handled that day were for lower level property crimes, theft, or criminal trespass with low bail amounts. Not everyone had a case, though. Many in attendance simply wanted to know if they or a loved one had anything to worry about. A woman who attended was relieved to find that her grandson didn’t have an oustanding warrant. Another thought that she had one, but learned from the court that she only had a traffic ticket. “It’s nice just to be able to put some people’s minds at ease that they’re okay,” said Seattle Municipal Court Chief Clerk John Sattler. He suspected that some potential defendants were reticent to attend the event because they feared arrest. A few people even approached the door only to turn around, Sattler added.

“It just seemed like a good opportunity to get out in the community and help folks address these issues head on by coming in and getting information rather than getting picked up and arrested and having their life disrupted,” Sattler said.

The municipal court only deals with misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors and infractions, so none of the charges were serious by definition. Attorney Supervisor for Department of Public Defense Matthew Covello said at the event that many people with petty thefts or simple assaults were issued fairly high bail of as much as $10,000 to $25,000 as a condition of release or after failing to appear for a hearing. “So you have this massive level of warrants and incarceration rates for people committing petty crimes, allegedly,” he said.

Most of the cases that Covello sees reflect William’s narrative. In general, he says up to 75 percent of his clients are homeless people who say that they never received notices to appear at court. “Many times those warrants will sit outstanding until they come in contact with the police and very often they have no idea that there’s a warrant,” he said.

According to the court rules, the initial notices to appear in court are sent by mail. Then defendants are provided with a call reminder with the date, time, and location of the hearing a couple of days before their hearing. Gary Ireland, the court’s Public Disclosure and Communications Advisor, stresses that people are given initial appearance notices 10 to 14 days before the hearing. In some circumstances, such as when a defendant is incarcerated for driving under the influence and posts bail, hearings may be set within 72 hours. In those cases, the hearing date, time, and location is provided at the time of release.

Officials say that over the past couple of years the court has doubled down on finding ways to help defendants complete the court requirements. “We understand that people are very complicated and that their needs are very complicated. And if there’s something we can do to provide assistance in that to help wend people out of the justice system, that’s our goal,” Probation Services Director Betty McNeely said outside of the event.

It appears that their efforts might be helping. According to the city’s municipal court data, more than three thousand defendants with outstanding warrants from 2016 and 2017 had them cleared by the end of 2017. There were also less case filings and warrants issued in 2017 compared to 2016, but the court is uncertain about the cause of the decrease. The Seattle Police Department didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

The city’s municipal court was inspired to host the outreach event when some of the staff attended the Center for Court Innovation national conference in the spring of 2016 to learn about innovative court programs. Once they learned that some courts on the East Coast had success in their own warrant outreach events, the staff was prompted to review the conditions of some of the warrants they’d issued in Seattle. The court found that the majority of outstanding warrants were eligible to be addressed administratively without the defendant needing to be arrested.

Events like the one held in November could save the homeless from collateral consequences that could lead to life or death situations, said Seattle University’s Rankin. Outstanding warrants could preclude them from attaining housing, gaining employment, and apprenticeship programs, accessing public and federally assisted housing and food stamps or getting a driver’s license. Veterans can also be blocked from receiving benefits. “The list of the consequences are so extensive and can really contribute to this cycle of arrest, detention and default and rearrest,” said Rankin. “What it ultimately does is really make homeless people more resistant to recovery. It perpetuates the despair of people experiencing homelessness,” she added.

Merlyn Parker received an outstanding warrant in the ’90s, when his heroin addiction “came first.” Photo by Melissa Hellmann

Merlyn Parker received an outstanding warrant in the ’90s, when his heroin addiction “came first.” Photo by Melissa Hellmann

Failing to receive notices in the mail is not the only reason why homeless people don’t show up to court. Sickness, lack of transportation, and substance abuse can also create barriers to addressing citations. People with outstanding warrants are also more likely to be victims of crimes, she added, because their fear of arrest could prevent them from seeking help when they need it. The clear link between the criminalization of homelessness and collateral consequences of warrants is proof that all outstanding warrants should be absolved, Rankin said.

This cycle of arrest and rearrest also creates a “much more expensive burden for taxpayers than we would if we just invested … more robustly in non-punitive alternatives such as permanent support for housing and treatment and we took the law enforcement angle of this out,” Rankin said.

Real Change vendor Merlyn Parker agrees. Parker, a 44-year-old with shoulder length, curly brown hair, and a handlebar mustache, said that he often hears of homeless people failing to appear at court because they never received notices to appear, or because their addictions made it difficult for them to regularly check their mail. In the mid-’90s, he received an outstanding warrant because his heroin addiction “came first” and he didn’t go to the Compass Housing Alliance regularly enough to check his mail. He added that, although he’s been clean for about 20 years and he’s now housed, he still only checks his mail a couple times a month. Suzanne Sullivan, the Director of Advancement at Compass Housing Alliance, said that she is personally unaware of anyone missing court dates because they didn’t receive mail through the organization’s post office, but she clarified that it was possible that those who don’t regularly check their mail might inadvertently miss the notices.

Parker ended up spending about six months in jail after failing to appear at court and violating probation. Meanwhile, his original domestic violence charge would have resulted in about two months in jail.

Longer jail time and additional warrants are often the result of outstanding warrants. Desire Lyons, a 20-year-old mother who lives in Kent, was fired from a job and eventually received outstanding warrants in two different municipalities. She says this was all the result of her homelessness and that she hadn’t received notices to appear at court beginning in June 2017, when she and her family were evicted from the home they’d lived in for nearly a decade. Her original charge was for driving with a suspended license because she says she couldn’t afford to pay for traffic violations. When she went to court in Renton for the unrelated case of a misdemeanor theft charge in July, she was informed that she had an outstanding warrant in Lewis County. Then in October she learned that she had an outstanding warrant in Kent because her car was her only mode of transportation to get to work and attend court hearings, she said. Ultimately, Lyons blames the courts’ failure to properly communicate and to take individual circumstances into consideration for her hardships.

“I don’t really think the system really cares for homeless people, or minorities or people that come from low-income housing and have trials and tribulations,” said Lyons, who dropped out of high school at 16 years old. She said that her family didn’t teach her how to build good credit or how to address driving violations, partially because most of them don’t have driver’s licenses and have experienced homelessness themselves.

“No one is seeing them where they are without having this expectation that they be already made or put together and I just feel that’s wrong,” Lyons said about the courts’ treatment of the homeless. Through the help of public defenders and bail paid for by the local nonprofit Public Defender Association, she was finally able to address all of her warrants. The experience also inspired her to help others navigate the murky court system as a youth advocate at Community Passageways, a local restorative justice program for teens. “A lot of people that do end up with warrants due to being homeless, a lot of them are reoffenders. And it’s not always their fault. It’s not always that everyone is avoiding going to court,” Lyons said.

Seattle could benefit from looking to other jurisdictions throughout the country that have experimented with court system reforms of their own, says Rankin. For instance, San Francisco’s courts stopped issuing warrants to arrest people for failure to appear and failure to pay for quality-of-life offenses like loitering, camping, or sleeping in a park in 2015. Some cities also offer sessions designed for homeless defendants to resolve outstanding warrants called homeless courts.

“It’s very, very, very important here in Seattle for us to realize that a lot of these underlying tickets relate to necessary, life-sustaining conduct that people experiencing homelessness have no choice but to repeat on a daily basis,” Rankin said.

One reform that the court could start with is to improve communication with defendants by sending them email notifications and text messages with their court dates, said Parker.

And his wish might come to fruition soon. Ireland, the city’s municipal court’s Public Disclosure and Communications Advisor, told Seattle Weekly through email that the court is currently exploring the use of a text reminder in addition to the standard mail notice and the call reminder program.