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Court offers help clearing warrants for failing to appear in court

For the next two weeks, authorities in Baltimore are encouraging people with open warrants for failing to appear in court to turn themselves in and begin resolving their cases.

The Failure to Appear Warrant Second Chance program is aimed at tackling some of the 6,800 outstanding warrants for people who have missed court dates for nonviolent misdemeanor crimes. Because police do not actively try to serve those lower-level warrants, such defendants can find a chance encounter with a police officer turn into an extended stay in jail.

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University of Maryland law professor Douglas Colbert led the effort to put the program together.

"There are thousands of people who live in fear of arrests 24/7 because they missed their court appearances," he said. "They're very fearful that by coming to court [to resolve the warrant], they will receive a bail that they cannot afford, and they will spend the next 30 or 45 days in jail."

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There's no guarantee under the program, which started Monday and runs through Jan. 31, that a failure to appear warrant will be withdrawn. And police and prosecutors stressed that the underlying criminal charge will still have to be dealt with.

"This is not a forgiveness program," State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said. "This is a second chance at an opportunity, for those who have failed to appear in court, to have their matters resolved without fear of [additional] penalty."

But Elizabeth Julian, Baltimore's top public defender, said "there's an agreement with the judges that they will be lenient and reset [trial] dates."

Colbert said the program, conceived by University of Maryland law students, took 18 months of coordination with agencies.

He said students in the law school's Access to Justice clinic learned that many of the clients they worked with were being held on low bails they couldn't afford. Half of them had been picked up for missing a court date.

Colbert said many defendants become aware of their warrant, but fear being locked up and losing a job, or having no one to care for children or family.

Once they are arrested, Colbert said, "taxpayers are left paying the cost of unnecessary incarceration."

"The warrant recall means that you can get on with your life without fear of getting arrested," Julian said.

There are 35,000 active warrants in Baltimore, according to Police Commissioner Kevin Davis. He said the Police Department's Warrant Apprehension Task Force is focused on serving those that involve violent offenders.

"Countless times, personally, I've had someone run from me on foot, or flee in a car, only to discover when I caught up to him that he was running because he didn't want to face the FTA warrant he had," Davis said.

Defendants are asked to visit a public defender's office at one of the city's three district courthouses on Wabash, North and Patapsco avenues. They will meet with a public defender or other staffer who will confirm they are eligible to participate in the program and will file paperwork requesting to clear the warrant, authorities said.

Davis said cases that would be eligible include traffic offenses, shoplifting and disorderly conduct.

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If the public defender's office determines defendants are not eligible, they will be free to return home and try to find another way to resolve the warrant and open case, authorities said.

Mosby said cases will not "go away" because the defendants have turned themselves in, but many might not be salvageable and prosecutors may move to dismiss the charges.

"This program is a matter of judicial economy," Mosby said. "It's a system that will not only break down those barriers of distrust, but will … allow all of us to focus on the offenders in the city who need to be off the streets."

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