That could mean big trouble for a lot of people. Take, for instance, Dallas’ latest panhandling reduction plan, which city officials say aims to balance "compassion" and "enforcement" for people asking for money on the street.
As Dallas’ Office of Homeless Solutions director Christine Crossley explained it, this approach provides options for mental healthcare and access to social services for panhandlers who need it, while still enforcing the law for those who refuse to engage with social services offered through the city’s community courts.
If people with active warrants out for their arrest or unpaid fines from a previous citation don’t accept the community courts pathway, they can be taken into custody by the city marshal on the scene. The city and the county use the same database to search for active arrest warrants.
But reports recently published by the Dallas County Auditor’s Office raise concerns about the city’s new approach.
According to auditor Daryll Thomas’ latest assessments of Dallas County’s 10 justice of the peace courts’ records, there were until late last year at least 2,600 active arrest warrants stemming from cases that judges had previously dismissed or disposed of, or from cases in which defendants' didn't have an overdue fine.
“This poses a potential liability to the county for persons arrested in error,” said Thomas multiple court audit reports.
All of the erroneous warrants that the auditor’s office found in their latest round of inspections were recalled by the end of August of last year, the reports say. How many might still be in circulation remains unclear, though, as up-to-date audits for multiple JP courts have not been released. The auditor’s website states that COVID-19-related delays held up the process.
“One of the big scandals of the criminal legal system is that it has never bothered to have accurate records or data for anything it’s doing, when those things harm very poor people or people of color.” - Alec Karakatsanistweet this
Experts say that Dallas County’s failure to clear arrest warrants from law enforcement records presents an immediate threat to the constitutional rights of poor people and people of color.
JP courts mostly process low-level criminal misdemeanor cases like public disturbance or illegal solicitation, the kind of charges poor and homeless people are at high risk of facing.
“Dallas’ inability to stay on top of its administrative paperwork poses a threat to the liberty of individuals who are at risk of being stopped by the police for engaging in their constitutional right to ask for money,” said Dr. Hannah Lebovits, professor of public affairs and planning at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps said that while widespread inaccuracies in state and local arrest warrant databases are commonplace, “it is uncommon for the system to actually acknowledge that.”
“The individual actors who perpetrate this – the judges, the clerks, the cops – they understand that no real meaningful supervision or accountability is going to happen to them,” he continued.
City Council members Cara Mendelsohn and Gay Donnell Willis, who lead the council committee that launched the panhandling deflection program, didn't respond to inquiries over whether the auditor’s findings have any bearing on the program’s procedures and policies.