Imagine being scared to leave your house, feeling unable to go to work or fearing arrest while driving your child to school. For those with an outstanding warrant, this is a daily experience. That’s why about 750 people waited outside Washington Technology Magnet School Saturday to resolve their warrants – without any fear of arrest.
They came out for Misdemeanor Warrant Resolution Day, sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, NAACP Minneapolis, Pueblos de Lucha y Esperanza, Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota and Washington Counties, the Saint Paul City Attorney’s Office and the Minnesota Judicial Branch. It was ACLU-MN’s biggest Warrant Day ever. This was the first time that four counties participated at the same time, allowing judges to clear warrants issued in any county in Minnesota.
People in line often went in looking stressed and tired, and left both visibly and audibly relieved, faces shining. They looked as if a weight had been lifted.
That fear is a high price to pay for those with misdemeanor warrants, which can arise from something as simple as an unpaid speeding ticket. People often don’t know that an unpaid ticket can lead to a court date. People may have to miss court dates because they don’t have transportation or child care. Others can’t afford to pay. This contributes to a two-tiered system of justice based on wealth in which people face more serious consequences because they lack resources.
Instead of helping these individuals rectify their small legal issues, our criminal justice system penalizes them with a warrant. Deep mistrust of the police and the criminal justice system leads many people to avoid resolving their warrants for fear of what will happen.
The numbers illustrate just how impactful the event was. Preliminary results show about 1,500 warrants were cleared, three times the number resolved in the last three warrant day events hosted by the ACLU combined.
ACLU-MN Community Outreach Director Jana Kooren said that many attendees were “in awe something could be so positive in the criminal justice system”.
At one point, when a volunteer asked why the event was not held in a courthouse, which has more room and better technology, a participant walked by and yelled, “We wouldn’t come!”
Organizers purposely planned a community-based, family-friendly event. Hmong and Spanish translators were provided, and no registration was required. Participants were met by friendly volunteers, a free lunch and refreshments, along with a children’s table and a DJ. By partnering with community organizations such as the ACLU and the NAACP and hosting the event in a local school, the courts became an accessible tool for community members.
Warrants weren’t the only thing resolved either. Participants could come and not only relieve the pressure and fear that come along with a warrant, but also find additional community resources, including help in paying overdue taxes, finding a job, gaining legal services, and accessing social services and healthcare.
The event helped level the playing field for participants in our communities and in the criminal justice system.
As one participant said, “I had a lot of weight lifted off my shoulders. So happy now. I’m very appreciative to be able to solve situations. I didn’t want to go to jail. I’m really happy I don’t have to.”
(Photo courtesy of Republican Liberty Caucus of Minnesota)