At the recent two-day hearing at the Arizona State Senate's Judiciary Committee chaired by Sen. Jonathan Paton, Deputy Chief Paul Chagolla of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office testified repeatedly that there is no felony-warrant crisis in Maricopa County.
The assertion is as disconcerting as it is baffling. Maricopa County has 40,000 outstanding felony warrants - one for every 100 county residents. It has 61 percent of the state's population, but 73 percent of its unserved felony warrants.
According to MCSO statistics, that number has grown 14 percent faster than the county's population over the past 10 years. Likewise, MCSO's statistics show that the county closest in population - Harris County, Texas, which also shares a border with Mexico - has slightly more people yet only 9,912 unserved felony warrants, fewer than one-fourth the number in Maricopa County.
What's worse is that Chagolla testified that not a single MCSO deputy is assigned to serving warrants. MCSO clears warrants when it books suspects into its jails or when someone it arrests for another crime has an outstanding warrant, but it does not systemically look for felony-warrant fugitives. MCSO had a successful warrants unit until about six years ago, but it was disbanded.
Maricopa County has about four times the population as Pima County, but nearly 14 times as many outstanding felony warrants, despite Pima County's closer proximity to the Mexican border and the problem of illegal immigration. The Pima County Sheriff's Department contributes about one-third of the personnel to the county's Fugitive Investigative Strike Team. The department's focus on serving felony warrants reflects its belief that warrant fugitives are likely to commit other crimes. "If you focus on them," testified Lt. Michael O'Connor, "you have a greater chance of lowering crime rates."
Because crimes often are committed in different localities than where the suspects reside, coordination among law-enforcement agencies is critical. Numerous task forces, such as the Arizona Department of Public Safety's Violent Criminal Crime Apprehension Team, pool the resources of state, federal, county, and city law-enforcement agencies.
But when Sen. Ken Cheuvront repeatedly pressed Chagolla to name a local agency with which MCSO had coordinated the service of warrants, he could not identify a single one.
Though most Arizona law-enforcement agencies seem to take seriously the imperative to hunt down felony-warrant fugitives, no statute compels them to do so. Under state law, county sheriffs process all felony and most misdemeanor warrants, but presently they are not required to serve them, or even to coordinate service of warrants with state or local agencies.
MCSO views its role as a "repository" for warrants. But warrants don't need a home, they need to be served. Maricopa County's city police departments are left to fend for themselves. It makes little sense for the Chandler Police Department to serve a warrant in Peoria, particularly when there is a law-enforcement agency - the Sheriff's Office - which has countywide jurisdiction.
The Legislature can help solve the problem by creating clear lines of responsibility for serving warrants. At the county level, sheriffs should have bottom-line coordination responsibility. As the unincorporated parts of counties over which sheriffs have responsibility shrink, it makes sense for sheriffs to assume this role. Many already do so - not as a matter of mandate, but as a reflection of law-enforcement priorities.
At the end of the second day of hearings, Chagolla acknowledged that the warrants issue is a "systemic problem." Indeed it is. And MCSO needs to be a far greater part of the solution.
Clint Bolick is director of the Goldwater Institute Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation.