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Huge backlog of arrest warrants challenges South Florida police agencies

It's a daunting and never-ending job – prowling South Florida streets for people who don't want to be found.

Fugitive squads in police agencies confront that fact each day, and for every wanted person they find and arrest, thousands more remain on the loose. Broward County has an astounding 219,000 active arrest warrants; Palm Beach County, 58,000.

"There are more warrants issued than we could ever possibly make arrests on,'' said Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti. "Right here, there are people walking on the street who should be held accountable, and that bothers me. They need to be in jail.''

Statewide, more than 100,000 warrants are outstanding for felony offenses, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. That includes more than 6,400 warrants for people wanted for assault, 2,300 sought for sex crimes and 785 for homicide.

The majority of the warrants in South Florida are for relatively minor crimes — misdemeanors and traffic offenses, including driving with a suspended license — as well as failure to appear in court and violation of probation. But hundreds of others are issued for fugitives sought in robberies, kidnappings and other acts of violence.

Recent news headlines have been a reminder that serving warrants is dangerous and unpredictable work. Ten days ago, two Miami-Dade detectives were shot to death while attempting to arrest a career criminal on a murder warrant. Just before their memorial service began Monday, two St. Petersburg officers were killed serving a warrant on a sex offender.

"These days, there's just so many guns out there, there's no way to tell who's going to turn on you,'' said Capt. Carol Gregg, who oversees the warrants squad at the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office.

Florida is not unique in its abundance of unfulfilled warrants. Nationally, about 1.9 million warrants are outstanding, up from 1.4 million five years ago, according to the FBI.

"The backlog is large in a lot of [police] agencies,'' said Fred Wilson of the National Sheriff's Association. "The numbers are going to be more staggering in metropolitan areas.''

The problem comes down to math — too many warrants and too few officers assigned to track down fugitives.

The sheriff's offices in Broward and Palm Beach have warrants squads — BSO has six detectives, and PBSO nine. Last year, BSO received nearly 41,000 new warrants. That's more than 6,800 per detective.

The squads make an impressive dent in the problem. In December, for instance, PBSO served nearly 1,600 warrants, but in the same period it was handed 2,400 new cases, Gregg said.

"The numbers can quickly add up,'' she said. "That just continues to roll over.''

Total unserved warrants in Palm Beach County have gone up by about 10,000 in the past five years, an increase Gregg blamed on "just sheer volume and not enough officers and detectives out there to try to find these people.''

"It's not for lack of effort,'' she said. "When you have that many coming in, you're not going to be able to get all of them.''

In Miami-Dade, the fugitive squad that lost two of its detectives in the shooting this month has more than 170,000 outstanding warrants. "We have warrants that are 30, 40, 50 years old,'' said Detective Javier Baez, spokesman for the Miami-Dade Police Department.

Backlogs in Miami-Dade and Broward are high because warrants are kept active indefinitely.

Palm Beach County, by order of its chief judge, dismisses misdemeanor and criminal traffic cases, and the associated warrants, after five years of inactivity and misdemeanor DUIs after eight years. "Experience has shown it unlikely that a successful prosecution could be mounted in these cases,'' the judge's order says.

Law enforcement in South Florida must prioritize who they want to find. For the most part, only people wanted for felonies and violent crimes, including domestic violence, are actively sought.

Broward and Palm Beach have a combined total of more than 42,000 outstanding warrants for felony crimes, including 93 for homicide. Among them: Ralston Edwards, 39, formerly of Fort Lauderdale, who is wanted for a 2001 murder in Oakland Park.

Michael Burns was on the lam for more than 20 years for a 1984 murder in Delray Beach, when he was finally captured in 2008 living in Miami under the name of Donovan Robinson. Burns, 54, was found guilty of second-degree murder, released on bond and ordered to return to court for sentencing when he disappeared again.

Detectives assigned to find fugitives begin with a thorough search of records — driver's licenses, car registrations, utility accounts and more — to look for possible addresses. They knock on doors and talk to relatives, friends and associates. If all leads are exhausted, they move on to another case.

Rewards are offered for tips that lead to an arrest, and all warrants are entered into a computer system that officers are supposed to check when they make traffic stops or respond to calls.

Law enforcement agencies have developed some creative methods for nabbing fugitives, such as sending out fake prize notices and then arresting recipients when they show up to claim their winnings.

Visitors to Broward's jails are checked, their driver's licenses swiped and matched against state and federal warrants databases. Some fugitive visitors have been arrested in the jail lobby, Lamberti said.

The Palm Beach Sheriff's Office sends out a "green card'' to people wanted for misdemeanors or in traffic cases and are believed to be living in the county.

"Please be advised that our department is currently holding a WARRANT FOR YOUR ARREST,'' the card says. "In order to avoid physical arrest at your home or work, you must immediately bring this card with you to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office.''

That works about 60 percent of the time, Gregg said.

It's the more serious offenders who avoid detection — sometimes forever — that frustrate police the most.

"We try to put some really bad guys in jail and make the streets safer,'' said Sgt. Rick McDermott of the Palm Beach sheriff's fugitive warrants squad. "You just keep going forward and try to make a dent in the amount of workload.''

Lamberti spoke about the county's outstanding warrants at a breakfast meeting last week of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce. Mark Budwig, owner of S. Mark Graphics in Fort Lauderdale, couldn't believe what he heard.

"This was a huge shock,'' Budwig said. "It's astonishing that we have so few cops who are going after all of these people.''

Budwig had no idea that thousands of fugitive felons are on the loose. "It's pretty scary,'' he said.

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