A Colorado Senate committee has advanced a bill that would enact a text message program to remind criminal defendants of upcoming court hearings, but Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin is unsure how much it could help local defendants.
“Not every one of these defendants who don’t show up have a cellphone, so I don’t know how that’s going to work,” Nowlin said.
The Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday voted unanimously to advance Senate Bill 19-036 – called the State Court Administrator Reminder Program – to the Appropriations Committee.
If passed, the bill would require the state court administrator to administer the court reminder program for district, county and municipal courts that use the judicial department’s case management system.
The bill’s summary says the goal is to “significantly reduce the number of defendants who are committed to the custody of a county jail solely as a result of their failure to appear in court.”
According to a Journal analysis of incident reports from the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office and Cortez Police Department, the Sheriff’s Office served at least 50 warrants for failure to appear from November through January, and the police department has served at least 31. These numbers are likely low because officers frequently do not list the type of warrant in arrest reports.
Durango Police Department in the past year has served 382 warrants for county and municipal failure to appear. The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office arrested 302 people on failure-to-appear warrants.
Cortez Police Department Lt. Andy Brock said the failure-to-appear warrants make up the majority of warrants Cortez police serve.
On traffic stops, Brock said officers always check for warrants, and the department distributes a warrant list to officers on a weekly basis. Officers with some downtime might read through the list and go look for defendants.
“If you know where somebody works or hangs out, you’ll drive by those places,” Brock said. “Sometimes, you go by residences, and then sometimes, you catch other people in cars. A lot of times, birds of a feather kind of flock.”
Nowlin said deputies are out looking for people with warrants “every day and night.”
On the technology issue, Nowlin said deputies often encounter defendants who have a phone but haven’t funded their account and therefore cannot receive texts. Or defendants might buy a new phone with a new phone number, which can be hard to track.
“I’d like to see how it works,” he said. “It may be better for other areas.”
The bill’s language says that the court administrator would prioritize text messages unless “a more effective” means to remind defendants becomes available. If a defendant cannot receive text messages, the court administrator could use a phone call, email or other “internet-based technology.”
Courts would be required to send at least two reminder text messages to criminal defendants. If a defendant misses a hearing, the court would send an alert informing the defendant that a warrant has been issued.
Nowlin said there aren’t too many failure-to-appear warrants out of district court, which mostly handles felonies, but law enforcement sees a lot of those warrants in municipal court.
“Those are the ones who are a revolving door,” he said.
According to a news release from bill sponsor Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, the reminder program would improve the fairness of the criminal justice system.
“Passing this bill out of committee is an important step to reform our criminal justice system,” Lee said. “I look forward to getting it across the finish line.”