Fayette threatens scofflaws with jail time

| Friday, April 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

If you are wanted on an arrest warrant for failing to pay on a traffic fine or other minor offense in Fayette County, police have a message for you: See a judge before May 6 to set up payment arrangements or risk going to jail at any time of day or night.

“You aren't going to be able to hide,” Capt. David Rutter of Uniontown police said on Thursday.

“If you have summary charges that aren't disposed of, and fines that aren't paid off, or open cases at the magistrate level, contact that magistrate and make arrangements to pay the fine,” Rutter said. “If you don't, you are at risk of incarceration.”

The county has 7,000 summary arrest warrants waiting to be served on individuals who have not resolved court cases involving minor offenses such as disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, running stop signs or failure to keep grass cut, according to Tammy Lambie, deputy court administrator.

The warrants represent potentially “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in unpaid fees and costs that typically are divided among the courts and local and state government, Rutter said.

Many of the warrants have gone unserved because until now, such defendants could be arrested only during regular business hours, when they were taken before a district judge for an immediate hearing, Lambie said.

Beginning May 6, that will change when a new system is put into place to allow police and constables to serve warrants at any time.

Defendants who are taken into custody will then have two choices: post immediate collateral or go to jail for up to 48 hours.

The collateral amount will be set by district judges and can range from $50 to the amount owed, Rutter said.

District judges issue summary arrest warrants when people who are charged with minor offenses fail to respond to a citation or see a judge and set up payment arrangements then stop making payments, Rutter said.

Rutter said many offenders are aware that until now, if they were caught after business hours, police and constables could not arrest them. Police could merely advise them of the warrants and direct them to take care of it the next day, but many did not, he said.

“We know people intentionally hide during the day,” Rutter said. “We would encounter them at night, but we could just tell them to turn themselves in. They don't listen because they think, ‘You can't take me to jail.'”

Lambie said the jail previously was directed not to incarcerate people after business hours on summary warrants, but President Judge John F. Wagner Jr. is revising the policy to clear up the backlog of warrants.

Lambie said the courts prefer that people take care of their warrants before they are arrested because the intent of the new policy is to clear the backlog, not to send people to jail.

“We are trying to do everything we can not to put people in jail,” Lambie said.

Lambie said police and constables will now have access to electronic court records at the county's booking center, located at the Uniontown police station. Those records will list the collateral amount that a person with a summary warrant can post to stay out of jail.

Lambie said some of the warrants date to 2001. People who think they might have an outstanding warrant can contact their district judge's office for clarification, she said.

Or they can visit www.ujsportal.pacourts.us to search by name for cases. Rutter said people who discover they have a case marked “inactive” most likely have an arrest warrant pending and should contact the judge assigned to the case.

Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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