PENINSULA — If you’ve got an outstanding warrant hanging over your head, June might be your lucky month — Pacific County’s South District Court will soon host an “Amnesty Day.”
The June 21 event is a unique opportunity for people with warrants in South District Court or Ilwaco or Long Beach municipal courts to get their cases back on track without fear of arrest.
“You can get the warrant quashed. You can sleep at night, and not worry about getting picked up,” Judge Nancy McAllister said on May 31.
During the two-hour event, the fee for “quashing” a warrant will be just $50, instead of the usual $100. Experts will be on hand to provide information about enrolling in court-mandated programs and dealing with unpaid court debts. The court will also lift drivers license suspensions for participants.
South District Court officials can’t do anything about felony warrants, or warrants from North District Court or other jurisdictions. But they are offering a guarantee that people with only local Municipal Court or South District Court warrants will be free to leave when they’re done taking care of business.
“We’re not going to have deputies standing around waiting to arrest people. That won’t happen,” District Court Administrator Kim Hamilton said.
McAllister and Hamilton hope a lot of people will take advantage of the amnesty day. If they do, the court staff could be very busy — currently, there are more than 700 people with active warrants who qualify to participate, Hamilton said. In all, their bail amounts total more than $2 million.
Most of them aren’t hardened criminals. The municipal courts primarily deal with traffic tickets and citations for minor things like littering, and district court deals mostly with misdemeanor crimes.
Many of the people on the list simply didn’t show up for court dates, McAllister and Hamilton said. Some failed to comply with court-ordered requirements, like enrolling in treatment programs. Some violated the terms of their probation. Others didn’t pay their fines.
Some of the people were irresponsible, but others made honest mistakes.
“They could have just messed up. They could have been out of town,” McAllister said. “Then they sit there with this warrant in fear that they’re going to be thrown in jail.”
Hamilton said the court held an amnesty day several years ago, when the idea was still fairly new. Turnout was modest, but the idea showed promise. The state has also occasionally sponsored amnesty days in the past.
McAllister, who was appointed to replace Judge Doug Goelz last year, decided to try it again while training for her new role.
“In judicial college, the other judges were talking openly about making it more convenient to resolve legal issues,” McAllister explained.
When people don’t deal with their legal issues, minor screw-ups can take on a life of their own. Fines pile up. Collection agencies get involved. Warrants go out. But some people are so broke, overwhelmed, or scared of being thrown in jail that they won’t even call the court to sort things out, much less show up for a hearing, McAllister said. As a result, court officials sometimes come across people with years-old underage drinking or marijuana possession charges that are still messing up their lives.
“Fear is the biggest thing. It really is,” Hamilton said. “When you talk to someone, they say, ‘Will I go to jail? Will I go to jail? Will I go to jail?’”
Their fear is understandable, McAllister said. People who do get arrested miss work, family time and appointments. They may lose wages, or even their jobs. Without money, they can’t afford to pay their fines, or go to court hearings. The cycle continues.
“You have to also understand how disruptive that it to their lives. It interferes with their employment,” McAllister explained. “It’s easier to ignore it then to potentially go to jail.”
McAllister and Hamilton want to spread the message that court officials are willing to work with people who are trying to do the right thing.
The requirements for getting a warrant quashed are different for each person. Depending on why they got the warrant in the first place, they might need to set up a court date, enroll in a drug or mental health program, pay down a debt, get back in compliance with probation requirements, or simply enter a plea. If money is the issue, the court can often work out an affordable payment plan, they said.
More serious crimes are handled through the independent Superior Court system, so District Court officials can’t offer a no-arrest guarantee for people who have felony warrants. Asked how she and her staff would deal with people who have both types of warrants, McAllister said she was still researching the matter, but she believed court staff probably would have an obligation to notify the proper authorities.
“Our answer right now is, if we had someone that appeared and had a felony warrant, we would be making calls,” McAllister said. “We would probably call the prosecutor first and say, ‘Hey, someone is here on a felony warrant.’”
However, she said people in that situation still might benefit from going to amnesty day, because judges in all jurisdictions tend to look more favorably on defendants who show initiative.
“People that are sticking your heads in the sand — this is your opportunity to get things started,” McAllister said.
View the complete list of people with outstanding South District, Long beach Municipal and Ilwaco Municipal Court warrants here: www.co.pacific.wa.us/courts/sdc/outstanding-warrants-2017-05-31.pdf
Amnesty day will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. on June 21 at the South District Court. Drop-ins will be accepted, but participants are strongly encouraged to call ahead, so court staff can prepare their files.
Dynamic Collectors and McDonald Credit Service, the companies that collect court debts, will be available to consult with participants about collection matters. Dynamic is offering to waive interest and reduce collection fees for participants with cases in collection.
A representative from Willapa Behavioral Health with be available to answer questions regarding treatment options.
For more information, call 360-642-9417.