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State eyes Arundel effort to withhold tax refunds for people with open warrants

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An Anne Arundel County program that withholds tax refunds from people with outstanding warrants — and last year enticed hundreds of people to turn themselves in — could be expanded to Baltimore and possibly even statewide.

The idea, tried by county Sheriff Ron Bateman, has produced impressive results. Last year, his office sent letters to 446 people with warrants, saying refunds wouldn't be mailed until they settled their legal issues. The result: 345 people — 77 percent of those notified — turned themselves in, including some who faced criminal charges for assault, drugs and prostitution.

That has drawn attention from officials across the state.

"Everybody is all about money," said Washington County Sheriff Douglas Mullendore. "If they think they're going to lose a couple hundred dollars, they might as well turn themselves in."

Now the approach is the subject of a trio of bills moving through the General Assembly. Bills to implement the program in Baltimore City and Washington County have passed in the House of Delegates, and are scheduled for hearings in the Senate on Tuesday.

There's also a statewide bill that has passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House.

Baltimore officials aren't sure how many people with outstanding warrants they might pick up by holding back refunds, but they're eager to give it a try.

"With more than 25,000 open warrants currently housed in the sheriff's office, this is another potential tool to get wanted persons to turn themselves in," said Maj. Sabrina Tapp-Harper, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's office in Baltimore.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked for Baltimore's version of the bill as a means to help serve warrants more efficiently, said Kevin R. Harris, a spokesman for the mayor.

"Anne Arundel County has had some success with this approach, and the mayor is very interested in applying similar methods in Baltimore City," Harris said in a statement.

The program has the blessing of Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, who worked with Bateman to test the program last year.

Franchot says it costs no taxpayer dollars and has the benefit of serving hundreds of warrants in a safe, controlled fashion. Refunds can be mailed as soon as a warrant is settled, "even if we have to send it to jail," he added.

Serving warrants is a seemingly never-ending task for sheriffs' deputies across the state. In Anne Arundel, Bateman inherited a backlog of more than 13,000 warrants when he was elected in 2006. He now has a backlog of 8,700 warrants and gets 800 to 1,000 new warrants per month.

"You're just treading water," he said.

The highest-priority warrants are for felonies such as murder or armed robbery. But the vast majority of warrants are for people who fail to appear in court or who violate their probation, Bateman said. Of the warrants cleared last year in Anne Arundel through the tax refund program, 27 were felony warrants, Bateman said.

This tax season, he said, about two people per day are showing up at the Circuit Courthouse in Annapolis to turn themselves in after receiving warning letters about refunds.

"The success rates are off the charts," Bateman said.

Bateman knows greed is a powerful motivator. He's used the ruse of freebies such as fake flower deliveries and candygrams in sting operations that have tricked people with outstanding warrants into stepping forward — and getting arrested.

He likes the refund program because it gets people to come to authorities, instead of having to send out deputies to find suspects. The process is safer and quicker, he said.

It took some coordinating among multiple agencies to get the refund program set up. As it stands now, the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention has a central list of all warrants, and those from Anne Arundel are sent to the comptroller's office, where they're checked against tax records.

Under the state law that governs the program, those who file tax returns jointly with a spouse cannot have a refund withheld because of an outstanding warrant. Bateman said it's technically possible to separate the amount of a refund due a law-abiding spouse from the amount due a wanted spouse, but he agreed to eliminate joint filers from the program to help win approval from lawmakers for last year's pilot program.

Those who have both outstanding warrants and pending refunds are sent a letter. Most of the time, the individuals are booked, processed and then released on their own recognizance or on modest bail amounts, Bateman said.

Once the warrant is satisfied, the refund is released.

Last year, the comptroller released $271,000 in refunds under the program. But $343,000 in refunds is still being withheld — money that will go into state coffers if it isn't claimed in three years, Bateman said.

In Washington County, Mullendore thinks about 400 to 500 of his 2,500 warrants might fall under this program. If he can serve dozens or hundreds of misdemeanor warrants through a refund program, then he can focus on felony warrants, he said.

"That certainly would go a long way to helping Washington County reduce our warrants," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

pwood@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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