Some D.C. Fugitives Will Be Allowed to Surrender Without Arrest

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2007

A police officer pulls you over on a traffic violation and you fidget. Will he ask for your license, discover that outstanding warrant? Worry no more, say law enforcement officials in the District.

For the first three days of November, people wanted in nonviolent felonies, misdemeanors and traffic crimes can turn themselves in at a local church, probably without being arrested. The Fugitive Safe Surrender project is not an amnesty program. Charges won't disappear from records. But authorities said most participants' warrants will be quashed and new court dates set before people are sent on their way.

The effort is being conducted in conjunction with Bible Way Church, at 1100 New Jersey Ave. NW. Participants are to report to the church, where the key players -- judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and probation officials -- will dispense with most cases. Officials said they will provide "favorable consideration" to those who come forward.

The goals are to clear a backlog of thousands of warrants and give defendants without long criminal histories a chance to set things straight.

"We see it as an opportunity to de-escalate violence," said Nancy Ware, executive director of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, an umbrella organization in which local and federal law enforcement agencies share ideas and information.

Of the 28,000 outstanding warrants in the District, more than half are misdemeanors for failure to appear for court dates or other violations. No one looks for people, because resources are tight. The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, which monitors 15,000 former offenders, has nearly 2,700 of the outstanding warrants, 60 percent which are more than a year old.

Tracking the fugitives is difficult, and the Safe Surrender program is designed to reestablish contact so officials can monitor them. The U.S. Marshals Service is responsible for rounding up most of the District's fugitives, but officials said that most of its time is spent hunting for the 1,300 at large on felony warrants.

Paul Quander, who heads the court services agency, said the program offers an opportunity to avoid potentially dangerous situations. It's preferable to sting operations in which people are lured under false pretenses, such as free football tickets, he said.

"From a law enforcement perspective, a person with a warrant is a person with a warrant," he said. "People panic and do silly things. They run."

Keith Campbell, 43, knows what it's like to run. He missed a 2003 court date in a cocaine distribution case and was off the grid for eight months. He became nervous when he saw police officers and couldn't apply for legal jobs because many employers check for outstanding warrants, he said. Tired of running, he turned himself in. He was sentenced to 17 months in jail.

"I'm sure the judge was so upset that I had been on the run so long," he said. "But I got tired of running."

The idea for the safe surrender program began with the Marshals Service, which has successfully sponsored similar efforts elsewhere in the country. In November, 1,200 people gave themselves up in Phoenix. Since August 2005, nearly 4,000 have surrendered in Indianapolis, Cleveland, Nashville and other cities.

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