LaKeisha Kelly had long avoided the dreaded knock at her front door as unpaid traffic citations exceeded $3,200 and arrest warrants piled up.
Then came the morning of Jan. 25, 2018, when the knock finally came and the click of handcuffs spun Kelly’s world into a chaos, the very scenario that has the Fort Worth Municipal Court revamping solutions for bringing low-level offenders into financial compliance.
At 10:11, Kelly’s cell phone log shows, a clerk at the Arlington Municipal Court answered her call. Still in her nightgown, Kelly, a 43-year-old certified nursing assistant at Arlington Memorial Hospital, was feeling proud of herself. With a tax return promising a $4,000 refund, she was prepared to make good on her long-overdue debt and eradicate the nine warrants she unwisely put off — a common problem, Tarrant County court administrators say.
Fort Worth and Arlington, for example, have a combined 500,000 outstanding Class C warrants on the books totaling tens of millions of dollars in unpaid citations. The warrants represent many people who can’t afford the fine but otherwise have clean records.
As the annual Great Texas Warrant Roundup begins this month throughout much of the state, when police and the courts partner to ratchet up pursuit of those with Class C warrants and haul them to jail, Fort Worth is offering a more merciful policy.
February is “Warrant Forgiveness Month,” and it starts this week with the “Court in the Community” program designed to encourage offenders to come forward and work out payment plans without fear of being arrested. The result can be reduced or waived fees, community service and other solutions free of the humiliation of arrest, and free of the often devastating collateral damage that can accompany going to jail.
As Kelly was speaking to the court clerk, there was an unexpected knock on the door.
“I opened the door,” Kelly said. “There were two policemen.”
Arlington detectives. One said, “Are you LaKeisha Kelly? We’ve been looking for you.”
The detectives told her to step outside. They afforded a phone call to her husband, then escorted her to their vehicle where she was put in handcuffs, she said.
At 10:53, police records show, Kelly was booked into Arlington city jail.
Five days — 111 1/2 hours — later, in the wee hours of Jan. 30, Kelly said she was released to her husband and daughter. Her time served wiped out the warrants that had clung to her for more than a decade.
But her nightmare was only just beginning.
Kinder path to compliance
Kelly is the poster child for what can go wrong when warrants go unheeded; but she is also for Fort Worth’s new approach to moving away from arresting those with Class C warrants.
Arlington gave Kelly multiple chances to come forward and settle her debts. A city of Arlington spokeswoman said notices were sent at least twice by the court. Kelly had set up a payment plan in 2009, but failed to make payments, and she also did not abide by an order to complete 122 hours of community service. After a 2012 arrest in Pantego, she did not appear at her scheduled court date that could have cleared the warrants.
By finally arresting Kelly, the city believed it had exhausted its options with her
Arlington gave Kelly multiple chances to come forward and settle her debts. A city of Arlington spokeswoman said notices were sent at least twice by the court. Kelly had set up a payment plan in 2009, but failed to make payments, and she also did not abide by an order to complete 122 hours of community service.
By finally arresting Kelly, the city believed it had exhausted its options with her.
Tickets can be expensive and prohibitive for low-income offenders to pay in full. A survey last year found that 57 percent of Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a sudden expense of $500.
Driving without registration can run up to $200 and a speeding ticket can rise beyond $300. If multiple tickets are issued at once, they’re likely to go unpaid and result in an arrest warrant for each citation.
Arlington police Sgt. Jeffrey Houston said Kelly’s case is “not unusual.”
A civilian investigator started looking into Kelly’s whereabouts after years of her name floating in the warrant database. Two weeks ago, he found her and informed Detective Nathan Deary, according to Arlington police spokesman Chris Cook.
She was arrested and booked into Arlington city jail, where she pleaded guilty.
She missed her Sunday shift at the hospital without giving notice. Because she could not answer phone messages left by her supervisor, Kelly was informed after her release that she was likely going to lose her job.
A final decision was to come on Friday during an in-person meeting, but Kelly hasn’t returned voice and text messages since.
Her 24-year-old daughter, Destiny, the mother of a 5-year-old diabetic son, did lose her job at a call center in Southlake during her mother’s incarceration. Only a few days earlier, Destiny was given a “final written warning for attendance,” according to an email sent to Destiny from a Veritude/Fidelity HR manager and obtained by the Star-Telegram.
For Destiny to work full time, Kelly worked part-time so she could pick up her grandson from school, feed him lunch, check his glucose levels and give him insulin. But with Kelly in jail, Destiny had to miss her shifts on Jan. 25 and 26 to care for her son. According to the HR email, her assignment was terminated on Jan. 25.
Destiny and her son live in the two-bedroom Arlington apartment with her mom, stepdad Alan and a 10-year-old brother. Her paycheck was critical to the family paying their $850-a-month rent. Kelly fears an eviction.
“We were getting ourselves on track. We are not bad people,” Kelly said, breaking down in tears over the phone. “We just got out of a shelter, we just got on our feet. We don’t use drugs, we’re just trying to live an honest life and make it day by day.”
‘We’re here to help’
Eight Fort Worth field marshals have always been tasked with tracking down and arresting offenders with Class C warrants. However, the latter part of their directive changed in December.
The municipal court has granted marshals the discretion to bypass arrest and instead bring offenders directly before a magistrate to begin dialogue on a payment plan.
Senate Bill 1913, passed last year, opened the door for Fort Worth to reconsider and ultimately change its approach. The bill gives judges leeway in setting lower fines for citations such as traffic tickets, and can elect for offenders to pay fines through things like community service.
While Fort Worth is the lone Tarrant County city to officially change policy, several municipal court administrators said there is a growing preference to avoid arrests and end a practice of what some critics call “debtor prisons.”
“We’re called the people’s court for a reason,” Fort Worth Municipal Court Director Theresa Ewing said. “We’re here to help in any way we can and we have to be more flexible in how we’re allowing people to resolve their situations.”
Statistics provided by the Fort Worth Municipal Court show that in 2016 and 2017, more than 99 percent of offenders picked up were taken to jail. Under the more lenient option, 22 percent of those picked up by marshals in December 2017 were brought to a magistrate, and last month, 37 percent were spared arrest. Ewing said she expects that number to continue to rise.
To illustrate the unnecessary and damaging domino effect that an arrest can have, such as in Kelly’s case, Ewing tells a story she says makes her tear up every time she tells it. Last October, when Fort Worth first experimented with a more compassionate policy of no arrest, a woman newly widowed and with five children and Class C warrants hanging over her head, came to see a judge.
The judge found her indigent, and waived all of her fees, allowing her to concentrate on getting her family back on its feet without the burden of living under the shadow of a warrant. Had the woman been stopped by a police officer, the woman risked being arrested and Child Protective Services being alerted.
“When you talk about the domino effect, think about impounding of a car, the cost to get it back, so many ancillary things that happen as a result of having a warrant in the first place because you don’t come in and talk to us,” Ewing said.
“That is my campaign until I die is to just get people to come in and talk to us.”