Gallatin County's outstanding warrants: Do they warrant attention?
SEAN SPERRY/CHRONICLE Dennis DeLaittre stands next to a memorial erected in honor of his son Montana Highway Patrol Trooper David DeLaittre at the spot where his son was shot and killed West of Three Forks while on duty Dec. 1, 2010.

Grieving the loss of his Montana Highway Patrol Trooper son who was shot in the line of duty, Dennis DeLaittre says he'd like to know how law enforcement agents in Gallatin County handle misdemeanor warrants.

David DeLaittre's assailant, Errol Brent Bouldin, had an arrest warrant in Belgrade at the time of the incident on Montana Highway 2 outside Three Forks during which Bouldin too was shot. Bouldin was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound a few hours after the shootout south of Townsend.

That Bouldin was wanted is not atypical. In fact, outstanding warrants are abundant in Gallatin County.

Often, a person isn't even aware they have a warrant -- they forget to pay a fine on a speeding ticket or don't show up for their court date, for example. It's a common occurrence.

So common, in fact, that between Gallatin County and its five municipalities, there are more than 2,000 outstanding warrants dating back to 1989, although only about 110 of those are felony arrest warrants, according to Gallatin County records. That leaves more than 1,900 misdemeanors unresolved.

Bouldin's arrest warrant was a misdemeanor -- he didn't show up, as the court had ordered, to a victim-impact panel for a drunken driving offense.

As a former trooper himself, Dennis DeLaittre recognizes that law enforcement officers don't have the resources to chase down the hundreds of people who fail to pay a fine or forget a court date. And even if they could, the current jail, designed to house up to 39 inmates, is perpetually overcrowded.

So packed that officers charging drunken drivers often don't place them in custody. Instead, those people are cited and released.

And though the new Gallatin County jail slated to open this spring has more than four times the capacity of the current one, that doesn't mean law enforcement will be immediately filling it up, said Gallatin County Sheriff Jim Cashell.

"With the new facility, are we going to be more proactive?" Cashell asked. "Yes, assuming we have the resources.

"I think what will happen initially is a spike in the (jail) population and then quickly we'll get back to the community corrections programs," he added. "We still have to manage the jail population so we don't end up where we are today."

DeLaittre also is circumspect in saying it really isn't clear that had Bouldin's warrant been served, it would have changed the outcome of the events of Dec. 1.

"Obviously, we can't say that everyone who has a misdemeanor warrant is going to go out and shoot someone," he said last week. "But what if they would have picked him up?"

Yet he hopes he can urge officials to become more proactive in resolving these outstanding issues.

Working the warrants

Cashell said that over the years the number of outstanding warrants have remained "fairly stable."

In the last five years, 429 warrants were issued through Gallatin County Justice Court and 70 through District Court, he said.

"Are some of these people fugitives?" he asked. "Yes."

But many of the warrants in Gallatin County are for people who wrote bad checks and then failed to respond in some way to the charges.

Though there is not a person specifically dedicated to tracking down warrants, the deputies will make calls to people with warrants who typically come in to take care of them.

"A majority of the warrants are taken care of very quickly," Cashell said.

And with a transient population of college students, it is not uncommon for a warrant to languish because a person had lived here for a short time and then moved on.

"Do we have time to go look for Joe Schmoe when he's only lived here for a few months and wrote a bad check?" the sheriff said. "I think we do a good job."

There are more than 1,250 outstanding warrants sitting in Bozeman Municipal Court -- by far the most of any jurisdiction in the county. But with Bozeman's transitory nature and population density, that's hardly surprising.

Bozeman Police Chief Ron Price said his administrative staff routinely makes calls to people with warrants and his officers will seek out people who are "a true danger to the community."

"We pay attention to warrants; they're orders from the court," he said. Often when people receive the calls, their reaction is, "Oh geez, I had no idea this existed," and they deal with it promptly.

The Bozeman Police Department served 559 outstanding warrants last year -- some from other jurisdictions, the chief added.

Belgrade Municipal Judge Michele Snowberger said she reviews warrants every few months, and she meets with the police department to discuss each case.

Sometimes she has to dismiss cases because of speedy trial issues. Some cases also can't be prosecuted because witnesses are no longer available.

But just last week, when a Belgrade officer called a woman in New York with an outstanding warrant, she, like many in her situation, was surprised and wanted to tend to the issue immediately, Snowberger said.

"Our past jail issues are some of the problem, but some people we just can't find," Belgrade Police Chief E.J. Clark Jr. said last week in a written statement. "We will be very proactive on the warrants when the new jail opens. Now this does not mean a run on the jail, but law enforcement needs to operate.

"We are required to work on these warrants; they can't just sit stagnant for years without us ever attempting to find the person. So they are getting worked," he added. "I believe all of the departments will be more proactive in regards to warrants when the new jail opens."

And though Bouldin's warrant was out of her court, Snowberger said the events of Dec. 1 won't really change how she evaluates outstanding warrants.

"It was a very awful tragedy that happened," she said. "It brings into clear view the dangers of working in law enforcement, but it has not changed my thinking process in issuing warrants. That process is going forward."

DUIs in jail ... or not

With the current jail typically crammed full, detaining drunken drivers and those on misdemeanor sentences are also issues.

Clark said he anticipates the new jail will affect the way his officers handle DUIs.

"My intent is not to cite and release on DUI after the new jail is open," he said. "I never liked the situation as it is now. Necessity pushed us into the cite-and-release method. My intent is to revert back to the correct way to process DUI drivers."

While Cashell has a less restrictive, community-corrections philosophy - he seeks to use suspended sentences, treatment court, and community service as much as possible -- he recognizes some people convicted of driving under the influence still need to do jail time.

"The deal with DUIs is that we didn't have room for them after they were sentenced," he said.

So if the jail was full, and it typically is, people convicted of a misdemeanor scheduled their own jail time. At one point, there were 100 people on a waiting list to serve time for a variety of crimes -- most of them misdemeanor DUI, Cashell said.

The new jail should address that issue.

"There will be no more reservations for DUI sentences," the sheriff said. "Yeah, we're going to put DUI offenders in jail after they've been convicted. Now we'll have room to do that.

Price said it isn't clear to him yet if the new jail will change things for the Bozeman force.

"Will the way to do business change?" he asked. "I don't know." The jail will provide "new potential, but all of these things have to be hashed out."

For his part, Cashell hopes the new jail won't significantly change the way law enforcement handles people charged with crimes.

"We try to treat people as people and treat them fairly and with respect," he said. "And as a result, fewer people have to go to jail but are still held accountable. For everything that's out there, there's an exception. Each situation is evaluated on its own merits."

In Bouldin's case, Cashell said, it isn't possible to second guess each and every person charged with a crime, but judges and officers do the best they can.

"If we could predict that, we could fix it," he said. "But we can't predict human behavior."

Warrant roundup

DeLaittre plans to ask a state legislator to sponsor a bill that would make Dec. 1 a "warrant roundup day" throughout the state.

"David's death should not have happened. It should not have happened," he said. "I don't want it to happen to any other officer, so I'm thinking ahead."

He feels in addition to an inadequate jail, society and thereby law enforcement, has become too complacent.

Referring to recent loosening of marijuana laws, he said, "Society has changed a lot of its ideas about what's right and what's wrong. Hopefully that hasn't happened with warrants.

"Is my boy just part of the cost of doing the job?" he asked. "Was his life the cost of not having a jail or the assets to pick these people up? Have we gotten so lax that a warrant doesn't mean anything anymore? If you just let them go away then we don't have much of a justice system."

He is hopeful the new jail will drive law enforcement officials to be more aggressive in seeking out the scofflaws in the area and will also be a deterrent.

"It may change Gallatin Valley a whole bunch if (criminals) know there's room in the jail," he said.

He also hopes that if his warrant roundup is instituted, people will respond.

"If you meet or see a law enforcement officer on Dec. 1, say thanks, buy ‘em a cup of coffee," he said. "Show them you appreciate the work that they're doing."

Jodi Hausen can be reached at jhausen@dailychronicle.com or 582-2630. Read her blog at jhausen.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @bozemancrime.

 

Notes:

  • "Assault" category does not count sexual assaults or partner-family member assaults.
  • "Drug-related" includes possession of drugs, possession of drug paraphernalia and other drug crimes.
  • Other includes all other crimes listed on the outstanding warrants, such as forgery, animal offenses, unlawful transactions, public urination, indecent exposure and escape.
  • Sources: Gallatin County Sheriff's Office, Bozeman Police Department

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