System Problems Lead to False Arrests

Reported By: Jennifer Leslie
Web Editor: Manav Tanneeru
2/10/2003 3:09:40 PM

Innocent people across Metro Atlanta are going to jail because their old arrest warrants were never taken out of a statewide computer system.

11Alive News Investigator Jennifer Leslie discovered problems with as many as 25 percent of the warrant records from metro Atlanta that are kept on that state computer system and updated by local law enforcement agencies.

The problems could mean some people who should have clean records are considered wanted criminals instead.

Nicole Thomas, 26, of Henry County needed a criminal background check to apply for a job as a teacher at her son's daycare center in August 2001,

"I just thought I was going in there, getting the record and leaving within 10 minutes," Thomas said, thinking that her record was completely clean.

But as she was waited for the information in the lobby of the Henry County Sheriff's Department, an officer arrested her.

"He said, Ms. Thomas, there's a warrant out for your arrest, you're going to have to come with me.' And then they put me in a jail cell. I've never been more scared in my life, Thomas said.

Thomas was wanted by the city of Smyrna for failing to appear in court for an expired tag.Thomas had, however, already paid her $250 fine months earlier, so the warrant was supposed to be withdrawn.

"When she came in to pay her fine, they had a legal duty to withdraw the warrant and they didn't do it," said Thomas's attorney Bruce Millar.

Thomas had to stay in jail in Henry County overnight and was not allowed to make a phone call until she was transferred to the jail in Cobb County the next morning.

Her husband had been out all night looking for her.

"He told me later that he was driving around, and he was crying because he didn't know what happened to me," she said.

Thomas was finally released after Smyrna city workers realized she was telling the truth.

"There are so many criminals out there doing things wrong, and they've just wasted 21 hours on me," she said. "I'm not a criminal. I've done nothing wrong."

Thomas is not alone in her experience.

Michael Moore, 44, of Acworth, Ga., spent four days in jail.

"It was just awful," he said.

In May 2001, Moore was stopped by a Clayton County Sheriff's Officer, arrested and taken to jail on a warrant from the Richmond County Sheriff's Department for failing to pay $500 in child support.

"I kept telling everybody that there's a mistake, I've already taken care of this," he said. "And if you call the right people, you'll find out that the warrant is no good."

In fact, his wife even had proof. She faxed in copies of a receipt showing he paid the money and an order from the court withdrawing the warrant more than a year earlier

Still, he stayed in the Clayton County jail through the Memorial Day weekend before an officer from Richmond County picked him up and drove him to Augusta.

"As we got to Augusta, and we were getting off the interstate, the Richmond Sheriff's Office called him in the car and told him there had been a mistake. The warrant wasn't any good. The officer said, `We'll go in the station anyway.'"

And when they got there, Moore was locked up for another four hours.

He was finally released and left to find his own ride home. He had to walk to the bus station and buy a ticket back to Atlanta.

"How did you feel when you finally got home?" Leslie asked him.

"I wanted somebody to pay because my kids, they didn't know what was going on," Moore said. "My daughter was so upset, and it was something...I can't really explain the way it made me feel."

In both of these cases, arrest warrants that turned out to be invalid were kept in Georgia's criminal information computer system, which connects police and sheriff's departments across the state. It lets officers know who's wanted and why.

Because that information is considered critical, all warrants listed in the computer are supposed to be checked every year by the law enforcement agencies that put them in the system.

"They're required by Georgia law to contact the court or the prosecutor's office to ask whether the warrant is still good, and if they do that, they catch these old warrants," said Bruce Millar, an attorney who represents Moore and Thomas.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) monitors the computer system through audits of local law enforcement agencies every two years. Auditors examine a small, random sample of warrants.

Recent GBI audit reports from 11 metro Atlanta police and sheriff's departments show an average error rate of 25%, meaning that one out of every four warrant entries could be invalid, inaccurate or incomplete. (Read reports of all 11 Metro Atlanta departments)

The figure is eight times higher than the current national composite error rate of three percent according to the FBI.

"That tells you that there's a big problem," Millar said.

In the latest Fulton County Sheriff's Department audit report, the sheriff's department scored a staggering error rate of 80 percent. As a result, officials have had to make some major changes.

"What we saw we had to do was basically revise our procedures how we enter warrants," said Sgt. Marcus Woods of the Fulton County Sheriff's Department. With the help of a new quality control manager, the sheriff's department was able to drop its error rate to five percent during a follow-up audit.

But for Nicole Thomas, errors of any kind by any law enforcement agency are unacceptable when people like her pay the price.

"Something needs to change because these innocent people are going through what I went through, and it's very traumatic," she said.

Thomas sued the city of Smyrna for her false arrest, and the case was recently settled.

To avoid a repeat of what happened, the city has hired new staff and improved its warrant validation process.

Michael Thomas is planning to file a lawsuit against the Richmond County Sheriff's Department, which denies wrongdoing in the case based on review of jail records.

There's no way of knowing how many people have been falsely arrested based on invalid warrants because no one keeps track.

Law enforcement officials advised that everyone should keep receipts and court records available just in case they need to prove that they are innocent.

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