Should warrant have kept Dontae Morris behind bars?

TAMPA — Police shooting suspect Dontae Rashawn Morris walked out of prison two months ago, even though he had an outstanding warrant for a bad check.

"That should have been detected," Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said in a news conference Wednesday.

It was, state corrections officials said. But it didn't make any difference.

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office told the state Department of Corrections that that officials there didn't want to pick up Morris to face charges in Duval County, said corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger. So the prison let him go.

But the felony warrant was still broadcast to officers statewide, which put it on the radar of two Tampa police officers who were killed while making an arrest based on it.

"I'm not sure if there was a miscommunication somewhere," said Duval County State Attorney Angela B. Corey.

In a statement issued Wednesday night, Jacksonville Sheriff John H. Rutherford said as much:

"We are now looking into the October 2009 communication between the Department of Corrections and Jacksonville Sheriff's Office regarding Morris' scheduled release in April 2010."

On Tuesday, Tampa police officials said Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis were trying to arrest Morris based on a misdemeanor worthless check warrant.

But the Jacksonville sheriff said Wednesday that Morris actually had not one, but three bad check warrants.

Two were misdemeanor warrants that limit extradition to within only Clay, St. Johns, Baker and Nassau counties. The third, which was a felony worthless check warrant, indicates statewide extradition — which means an agency could travel anywhere in Florida to get a suspect.

"We are working to determine if our Records and Identification clerk missed the third worthless check warrant, which indicates a statewide extradition order," the sheriff said.

Chief Castor said she has been communicating only with Jacksonville authorities about the current manhunt for Morris. She said that up until Wednesday she was aware of his misdemeanor warrants only, not his felony charge.

"If there were mistakes that were made in the issuing of warrants or not issuing, we'll look at it after the fact," Castor told the Times. "Right now we're not going to start pointing the fingers of blame.

"And frankly," she said, "It's not going to bring the officers back."

But the warrant is inextricably linked to the fatal traffic stop. And officials can't answer these questions about it:

• If Morris' charge was important enough to alert officers statewide to the warrant, why didn't the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office pick him up from state prison?

• If authorities didn't find the charge important enough, why didn't they remove the statewide scope on the felony warrant?

Hillsborough County Sheriff's Cpl. Tony Vidal said when his agency decides not to extradite a suspect, it would make sure statewide officers know. Otherwise, an officer could capture the suspect the next day and the issue would repeat itself.

"If we didn't want him from that jurisdiction, for one reason or another, we would put notes in the system, or we would change the extradition limits."

According to the Duval state attorney, the extradition code was never changed.

And this question still hangs: Was there a reason to issue the warrant in the first place?

The Duval state attorney said the bad checks were passed to three different Publix supermarkets in Duval County — while Morris was behind bars.

"Did he even write these checks?" Corey asked. "He couldn't have, because he was in prison. Somebody else must have passed them.... Did someone use his identity?"

Times staff writers Jamal Thalji and Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 310-2081.

Should warrant have kept Dontae Morris behind bars? 06/30/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 1, 2010 12:55am]

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