18 February 2014

Questions Related To The Woman Arrested For Failing To Return A 9 Year Old Videotape

The basic, widely blogged story, is as follows (editorial comments based on this source):
Kayla Michelle Finley . . .  spent a night in jail last week for failing to return a video she rented [ed. within 72 hours] -- in 2005,  It was a VHS tape. Of a Jennifer Lopez movie.   
Finley, 27, was arrested Thursday in Pickens County, South Carolina, on a misdemeanor charge of failure to return the video[.] . . . The movie, "Monster-In-Law," starring Lopez and Jane Fonda as a feuding potential daughter- and mother-in-law, was rented from a video store, Dalton Videos, that is now out of business. . . .  
Finley was at the county sheriff's office on another matter when an active warrant for her arrest was discovered. Chief Deputy Creed Hashe told the station that the store's owner had asked a Pickens County judge for the warrant years ago when Finley didn't return her video.  Hashe said Finley had been sent several certified letters [ed. the last prior to the issuance of the warrant apparently in September 12, 2005] asking her to turn herself in. Finley spent the night in jail because her bond hearing couldn't be held until Friday morning. A judge released her on $2,000 bond. 
She said that after renting the movie she had to move out of state because of her husband's job and that she simply forgot about it. "I'm no criminal, but Pickens County Sheriff's office sure made me feel like I was," she wrote.  She said she never received any letters from the sheriff's office[.]
The police apparently claim that "warrants never expire."

A variety of legal and criminal justice policy questions flow from this story.  In no particularly order:

1. In civil cases, it is possible to comply with the statute of limitations by simply filing a civil action in court.  But, in criminal cases, there is usually a statute of limitations within which a person must be charged with a crime.

My impression as a non-expert in criminal procedure was that this usually happens only after a person is arrested, but I may be incorrect.  The U.S., unlike some other countries, doesn't trial people for criminal offenses in absentia, unless they flee in the middle of trial or escape for incarceration pending trial.  If my impression of this is wrong, should the triggering event for the statute of limitations be changed?

The statute of limitations for a misdemeanor offense, this typically isn't terribly long.  In Colorado, for example, it is 18 months, although it can be tolled for up to five years while the defendant is outside the state.  C.R.S. 16-5-401.  It appears that in this case, the woman didn't leave the state and that the case is nine months old.

If the statute of limitations on the underlying crime has expired, isn't the state violating a constitutional right by keeping arrest warrants for that crime in force?  In misdemeanors, which are constitutionally deemed insufficient to justify mandatory duties of states to extradite suspects based on out of state warrants, the public good case for never expiring warrants is particularly weak.

In other words, if the maximum statute of limitations is six and a half years for misdemeanors, for example, is it constitutional to have an arrest warrant system that keeps misdemeanor arrest warrants live for nine years?

Even if the constitution allows a rule that "arrest warrants never expire", is that a good rule of law as a policy consideration?  (Search warrants in Colorado generally expire two weeks after they are issued.)

The default rule in the 20th Judicial District in Colorado (Boulder County) is that all warrants automatically expire after eight years, unless the DA brings a timely action to have them extended, unless an earlier expiration date is stated on the face of the warrant.  There does not appear to be any statewide policy on this issue, although perhaps maybe there should be one, and I am not familiar with common practice in this area.

2. Generally speaking, criminal offenses require an intent to steal or intent to defraud, rather than imposing mere strict liability for a breach of a contract, which is ordinarily a civil matter.  Arguably, sending a certified letter when there is proof that it is actually received by the intended recipient might provide probable cause for issuance of an arrest warrant, but merely sending a certified letter without proof of receipt should not suffice for that purpose.  As this case illustrates, there are all sorts of reasons, moving being a common one, that certified mail is sent but not received and not returned.  Strict liability criminal statutes aren't unconstitutional, but they are rare outside of traffic laws and drug laws, and are strongly disfavored.  I doubt that South Carolina has such a statute.

So, the likelihood that this warrant was issued without probable cause is significant.  An arrest not supported by probable cause is a violation of the constitution as well, although it might be given deference if issued by a judge (as opposed to involving a warrantless arrest by a cop).

3. Large numbers of idiots in the South Carolina legislature appear to have enacted a statute to criminal failure to return rented videos, despite the fact that video rental stores have much more proportionate contractual remedies like charging customers the cost of the video if it is not returned and suing them for it or reporting it on their credit report.  Why use the very expensive criminal justice process to collect petty civil debts that do not involve harm to the general public?

4. Even if the law authorized prosecutions of people for not returning videos, why did local law enforcement and prosecutors decide that this was an appropriate use of resources back in 2005?

5.  Even if you are going to make this a crime, why make it a crime that provides a basis for an arrest and pre-trial incarceration and possibly post-trial incarceration, rather than assigning a mere fine to the office as is the case in the vast majority of strict liability offenses in the criminal justice system.

In terms of the civil liberties implications, note that every arrest followed by incarceration involves a strip search and cavity search.  The U.S. Supreme Court has had no qualms with arrests and everything that goes with them for trivial offenses, but just because it is constitutional doesn't mean that it makes sense as a matter of public policy to do so.  Colorado law has not since 1982, for example, permitted suspicionless strip searches of people arrested for traffic offenses and petty offenses (CRS 16-3-405), even though the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, does.

6. Is it really constitutionally reasonable to impose a $2,000 bond for theft of property that was worth $20 or less at the time, under circumstances such as the case being nine years old and involving a woman (with no mentioned prior criminal record) who is a resident of the local area, that make its validity suspect and the risk of flight low?

7. Suppose that this woman pleas guilty to get the case over with and is sentences to time served of a night in jail, and fined $2,000?  We know that the night in jail wouldn't constitute a cruel and unusual sentence under the 8th Amendment as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, but would a $2,000 fine constitute an excessive fine for a strict liability $20 offense committed by someone with no prior criminal record under the more strictly interpreted excessive fines clause?

8.  This case comes very close to unconstitutional incarceration for failure to pay debts, a widespread problem especially in the South.  For example, in Colorado, the adverse possession period for a rented videotape would be three years after the due date.  After that, there is a debt owed to the video store that might conceivably last longer, but not any stolen property that can be recovered and it becomes no more than imprisonment for failure to pay a debt.

9.  The cops may have inaccurately felt that they had a legal obligation to arrest everyone with an active warrant in the system without further inquiry.  But, why didn't the district attorney who showed up in court when the woman was charged not size up the case and immediately dismiss it?  Shouldn't the fact that the complaining witness is unlikely to be available encourage to DA to promptly dismiss the case without insisting on a plea bargain?  This seems like yet another of legions of examples of overzealous prosecutions of marginally criminal conduct in weak cases by bad lawyers who don't understand how to exercise good judgment.

10.  Suppose that this woman takes the case to trial and is acquitted, or has the case dismissed by a prosecutor or a judge prior to trial without receiving any concession in exchange.  Should this woman be entitled to any remedy from the State?

11. This is just the kind of case involving arbitrary punishment for having contact with the Sheriff's office that discourages people who distrust authorities already from cooperating with police.  The public safety cost of trying to enforce stale warrants for petty crimes far exceeds the benefits to public safety from doing so.

12. Is anyone the least surprised that this happened in the land of Dixie rather than in Yankee territory?

1 comment:

Jude said...

Libraries face the non-return of materials constantly. The statute is: 24-90-117. Theft or mutilation of library property. Any person who takes, without complying with the appropriate check-out procedures, or who willfully retains any property belonging to any publicly-supported library for thirty days after receiving notice in writing to return the same, given after the expiration of the time that by the rules of such institution such property may be kept, or who mutilates such property commits a class 3 misdemeanor and shall be punished as provided in section 18-1.3-501, C.R.S - See more at: http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdelib/librarylaw/part1#24-90-117

I once had a library customer who checked out 11 books and 7 audiocassettes worth over $250 and kept them for over a year. When I finally turned the account over to the sheriff (the library was in rural Colorado), they went to her apartment, which was about 300 yards away from the library, and she returned the items. Her response was that she was too embarrassed to return them because she'd had them out for so long. My response would have been, hey, we have a book drop so you can return them anonymously, and we don't charge fines. I was happy to get the items back, but thought it was fairly insane to have to do it via law enforcement.