Pinellas arrest warrants need review

Published Sept. 26, 2012

The next Pinellas County sheriff should review the way the office serves arrest warrants. Given the pressure to cut millions in spending, it's understandable why former Sheriff Jim Coats chose four years ago to eliminate the unit with the primary responsibility to serve arrest warrants and hand that task to all deputies. But that approach in Pinellas does not appear to be as effective as the dedicated warrant units still used in other counties, and more effort should be made to reduce the backlog.

As Tampa Bay Times staff writer Peter Jamison reported this week, Pinellas is the only sheriff's office in Tampa Bay and the only one among Florida's seven most-populated counties that does not have a unit dedicated to serving outstanding warrants. It is probably no coincidence that Pinellas also has the highest per-capita rate of outstanding felony warrants of any of those jurisdictions except Broward County, which is roughly tied. There are more than 14,000 outstanding felony arrest warrants in Pinellas. The number of outstanding warrants for both felonies and misdemeanors is more than 65,000, roughly 17,000 more than four years ago. So the trends appear to be going in the wrong direction for Pinellas compared to both recent history and to its peers.

The budget cuts and backlog of outstanding warrants have become issues in the sheriff's race. As Coats' chief deputy, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri ran the office's daily operations, endorsed the elimination of the sheriff's fugitive section to save $1.6 million and put a system in place so that all deputies would serve warrants. The Republican incumbent defends the system, and on Wednesday he cited statistics showing there are 636 fewer outstanding felony warrants now than there were in March 2010. Democratic challenger Scott Swope has made some constructive suggestions about how to reduce the number of outstanding warrants. He also has pledged to restore the unit dedicated to serving warrants, although he should be clearer about where he would find the money.

Swope also has exploited a high-profile case to make his point. Gregory J. Johns was accused of raping and impregnating an 11-year-old girl while there was an outstanding felony warrant for his arrest. Johns was shot and killed by sheriff's deputies earlier this month as they tried to arrest him on a charge of sexual battery. But the earlier arrest warrant was for a drug charge, and it is doubtful that any system serving thousands of arrest warrants would have made Johns such a high priority that he would have been arrested and in jail before the sexual assault occurred.

All local governments have had to make difficult budget cuts because of declining property tax revenues. Eliminating the unit that served arrest warrants saved $1.6 million in a year that the Sheriff's Office had to cut nearly $50 million in spending, and Pinellas is not expected to be flush with cash in the coming years. Gualtieri said Wednesday that even if he had an additional $1.6 million he would spend the money on other safety issues such as fighting prescription drug abuse, human trafficking and other crimes against children.

Even so, after the election, there should be a thorough review of how arrest warrants are handled, weighing that effort with other priorities. Pinellas should be more in line with other Tampa Bay counties and its peers around Florida in serving warrants, regardless of how it is done.