Amnesty Day clears old arrest warrants; provides a chance to move on

Court Proceedings during Amnesty Day, September 2, 2020 (Photo: NET News)
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September 22, 2020 - 11:24pm

Amnesty Day in Lancaster County, Nebraska, would give Shane Conrad a window of opportunity to clear up something that had been weighing on him for years.

At 9:13 pm on September 2, he received a text message at his home in Springfield, Illinois, and this is what it said:


The text message received by Conrad prior to court. 

Conrad stands before County Court Judge Yardley.

Josh handles his paperwork and pays fines, following his hearing. (Photos: Bill Kelly/NET News)

 


"This is from your attorney at Lancaster County Public Defender's Off. You have a misdemeanor warrant. Tomorrow, Thursday, September 3, the Lancaster County Court is holding an Amnesty Day for misdemeanor warrants."

Conrad got the message because of a 2016 run-in with the law in Greenwood, where he settled in for a few weeks for his job, building cell phone towers. He was living "right outside in the campground out there." 

"I came into town. I had some drinks, and a cop was sitting there watching the bar." The officer pulled Conrad over, conducted the usual sobriety tests, and cited him for driving under the influence.

Later in Lancaster County Court, he pleaded 'no contest' at his first court appearance and returned home to Illinois. He did not return to Nebraska for his sentencing. The judge issued a warrant for his arrest.  Now it wasn't just a fine and suspended license. Shane could also face jail time if he got picked up with a warrant. 

Conrad's case is one of the thousands of cases across Nebraska, where county courts wait to hear from people with outstanding warrants from minor offenses.  This week, over four thousand outstanding warrants remained on the books just in Lancaster County.

As Lancaster County Judge Thomas Zimmerman puts it, "the necessary evil is that the issuance of a warrant (gets) someone's attention. 

"If everybody just appeared (in court) as they were ordered, that would be the perfect world," he said. 

Since it's not a perfect world, each warrant a is a little landmine waiting to go off in the lives of the targeted person if they don't get it resolved with the legal system.

During the first week in September, Lancaster County Court held its first Amnesty Day. A second is scheduled for Thursday, September 24. 

The goal is to give people who have outstanding warrants the chance to appear before a County Court judge and possibly clear outstanding warrants without ending up in jail.

"If there's a warrant and the police contact you, by law, they have to they have to take you to jail," according to Joe Nigro, the head of the Public Defender's Office in Lancaster County. 

His staff defends many clients charged with relatively minor crimes, including drunk driving, shoplifting, or getting in fights. If someone accused gives a judge a reason to issue a bench warrant, the result is almost always bad for the accused. 

Nigro adds it has an impact on an already overloaded court system when people miss court only to be picked up by police later when "it winds up being a lot of time and resources for every other piece of the system."

His court-appointed attorneys often represent these cases, and a prosecutor from the county attorney's office is obligated to attend the additional hearings. 

A warrant can lead to being held in the county jail, "and it costs $100 a day to hold somebody in Lancaster County Jail."

The nighttime text message sent to Conrad let him know he had a chance to get the warrant erased from the record if he would finish the legal process and face the consequences at the courthouse in Lancaster County.

"I looked at the Google Maps; it was about an eight-hour drive from where I was at it showed up that I was able to make it between 5:00 and 6:30."

His father was behind the wheel all night since Conrad didn't want to make the trip on a suspended driver's license. They arrived at 5:30, went straight to court, and waited his turn.

Lancaster County Judge Laurie Yardley opened the proceedings unsure who might show up or how busy she might be. She was presiding as part of a program thought to be one part of a solution for a system, she says, becomes "clogged" with outstanding arrest warrants. People run afoul of the law because they haven't paid fines or failed to show up on the date ordered by the court. 

Amnesty Day in County Court provides a "free pass" to get rid of the warrant and finish up the minor criminal matter they were charged with initially.

Of the dozens notified by text messages, letters, and through the news media, fewer than a dozen took advantage of the opportunity. Those who arrived knew it was in their own best interest.

Most arrived in Courtroom #24 for the late afternoon session, (called Night Court even though it is scheduled well before dark.)

The state's judicial and law enforcement community has been searching for ways to clean up the glut of warrants, believing it benefits both the people coping with the consequences and the legal system itself.

Among the cases, a young landscaper named Jacob took advantage of the opportunity to erase an arrest warrant he'd been dodging after being caught driving with an out of date license.

"It was just kind of hectic getting my license in order with the DMV being closed down with everything going on," he explained. However, a pandemic was not an excuse for driving without the legal documentation.

As he stood quietly before Judge Yardley, she quickly worked out a plan to get Jacob's fines paid and get his license back in good standing. This was important for him to be able to keep his job.

After paying his fines in the lobby, he said he found the experience "a lot nicer" than anticipated. 

"Things went smooth and fast, and it was a lot better than usual."

For each person making an appearance, Judge Yardley evaluated the case, cleared the warrant from the record when appropriate, and scheduled a new court date moving the case forward.

"Some of the people were very thankful" for arranging hearings and schedules for repaying fines, "accommodating their schedule, so they didn't have to miss work."

"I think that it's a pretty good attitude," added the judge.

One young woman arrived to deal with five outstanding warrants she had racked up during a later hearing. With them, the fines and license suspensions brought on increasing pressures while she struggled without a job.

Within a few minutes, Judge Yardley, speaking nearly at an auctioneers pace, set up a payment schedule, including some paid public service time, to clear up the woman's multiple fines. 

One of her warrants came when she failed to show up in court to face a charge of driving without a license and no seatbelt on a child. The judge handled that as well, asking her how she pled (guilty) and arranged a schedule for the new fines to be paid off.

If it seemed like a lot, showing up for Amnesty Day kept her out jail and had the chance to get her out of a cycle of fines and warrants and more fines.

"I can say with confidence that we as judges don't like to send people to jail," said Lancaster County Judge Thomas Zimmerman, an advocate for finding ways to reduce the number and impact of the court issued warrants on the system.

"If we can clear the warrant so that somebody is not picked up and having to be processed through the jail, that's all the better," he told NET News.

"All of that is to the to the benefit of the defendant, certainly, but it also makes the court system work better because they've come to court, and they've addressed the issue, and then they moved on with their lives."

Some people don't show up for court because they may be irresponsible, but others can't get away from work; they have health issues, lack of transportation, or fear of what might happen in front of the judge.

"There's a lot of reasons that people can't make court appearances," Zimmerman said. "We try to take all those considerations into account, too, but if we don't know (the reasons behind the failure to appear), then it's difficult for us to do anything but issue the warrant, unfortunately."

This month was the first time the Lancaster County Public Defenders office zapped out text alerts to dozens of clients. It's a test run of a system that would send out messages for all types of information needed by those working their way through the court system.

The office will evaluate if contact via cell phone makes an impact on reducing the number of no-shows. 

Not many responded on Amnesty night, but the one who did, Shane Conrad from Springfield, was a notable example of the promise of the system. 

"Good for him for deciding to take care to take responsibility and get that resolved," said defense attorney Joe Nigro.

Conrad stood quietly before the judge as she worked out a plan responding to the original drunk driving charge. He might still face time in jail or a monitored house arrest back in Illinois. 

After the hearing, Shane said he could live with that in the hopes of moving on.

"I just want to get this resolved and be in a better place in my life," he said, following the hearing. "I just want to have everything resolved and move forward without having little things like this."

Reminded that jail time might not be considered a small thing, Conrad agreed but added it was a "small thing considering the big pieces of life."

Judges who handle these cases concede that the idea behind Amnesty Day has a lot to do with marketing. They want to get the attention of those who would benefit by featuring it on a specific day. 

But many county courts don't require an Amnesty Day to clear a warrant and get someone moving ahead and ultimately out of the legal system. All they need to do many times, for minor offenses, is show up in court and face the consequences of the original crime. 


Additional Note:

The next Amnesty Day session will be held Thursday, September 24, on the second floor of the Lancaster County Courthouse in County Courtroom #24 during its regularly scheduled Night Court hours 4:30 pm to 6:30 pm. ONLY for warrants issued within Lancaster County and the City of Lincoln are eligible for review. Check with your local clerk of the county court for information about how to handle warrants.

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