Uncovering the justice system's 'dirty little secret'
By Anne Harpham
Advertiser Senior Editor
By Anne Harpham
Advertiser courts reporter Ken Kobayashi spends most of his working hours at state and federal courts — in fact, we rarely see him in the newsroom.
And over the years of covering courts, he heard time and again about bench warrants going unanswered. It was one of those things that nagged at him as he went about his daily news reporting. How, he wondered, could so many people escape answering the warrants, and why were they not being enforced?
He wrote one story almost a year ago that touched on the problem but knew that to fully tackle the issue would take a major time commitment.
That story in April 2005 focused primarily on the backlog of thousands of unserved traffic bench warrants. The state judiciary had hired a Texas collection agency in an effort to collect outstanding fines, was switching to a new computer system and had begun purging old traffic bench warrants.
By October, Kobayashi had convinced editors to give him the time to dig into the issue. Joined by longtime investigative reporter Jim Dooley, he embarked on the project that culminated in the special report last week, "Justice on Hold."
The compelling package highlighted a problem that is, as the story noted, costly and potentially dangerous. And it looked at how people had been personally affected by the situation. It found that thousands of defendants had managed to avoid both routine and serious charges.
Dooley said that in reporting the story, they tried above everything else to personalize the numbers by talking to traffic offenders and to their victims.
But before they could do that, they spent weeks digging through files and documents to determine the scope of the problem and what it meant for the criminal justice system and for Island residents. It helped that both reporters have reported extensively on criminal and civil cases and have deep knowledge on how the courts work. They ran into a number of roadblocks and conflicting information as they got into the story.
And they discovered early on that no one knew for sure the number of outstanding bench warrants. From the beginning of this project, Dooley and Kobayashi were given widely varying numbers. The judiciary's warrant totals differed from the numbers given by police and sheriffs. And Neighbor Island police departments could not differentiate between felony, misdemeanor and traffic warrants. They could only give Dooley and Kobayashi gross numbers of outstanding warrants.
Those conflicts continued right up to publication, and some of the questions remain unanswered.
Dooley and Kobayashi said sheriffs gave them access to warrant files, with some confidentiality restrictions. And they spent several hours a day for a couple of weeks in the warrants office of the sheriffs division in the basement of the Capitol, reviewing warrant files and transferring data into laptop spreadsheets.
Police eventually gave Dooley and Kobayashi a printout of their warrant list, after personnel had blacked out the HPD offender ID numbers for all 13,000 entries by hand.
The judiciary told Dooley and Kobayashi they wanted to help but that because of the switchover to the new computer system, much of the information was unavailable. When the judiciary's computer system went online in November, the two reporters could finally look at individual drivers and their court histories.
Dooley and Kobayashi also spent considerable stretches of time in Traffic Court, observing proceedings, monitoring specific cases and talking to drivers, prosecutors, defense lawyers, police, sheriffs, and their staff and court workers.
In addition, Kobayashi spent many hours reviewing old felony and grand-jury warrant files. He estimated that city and state prosecutors told the sheriffs not to extradite about 250 defendants back to Hawai'i to face felony charges. The reporting highlighted a practice not widely known outside of law enforcement circles of purposely suspending serving out-of-state defendants.
And although plowing through court records is tedious work, it enabled Dooley and Kobayashi to nail down the revolving-door pattern of drivers with a number of warrants who were still on the streets.
One legal expert called the arrest warrant backlog "a dirty little secret."
Thanks to Kobayashi and Dooley, it's not a secret here any longer.
Reach Anne Harpham at firstname.lastname@example.org.