The Prosecutor, November-December 2007, Volume 37, No. 6

Absconders beware!

2007

The Dallas County DA’s office has focused its energy and manpower to track down probation absconders with great success.

Real-world events often dictate change, adaptation, and innovation. Our experiences in the first six months of 2007 in building a Probation Absconder Unit may be useful for those of you who are considering new ways of tackling the problem of apprehending probation absconders. I believe our experiences highlight the advantages of inter-departmental cooperation in achieving this goal.

The Dallas County District Attorney receives over 80,000 case filings per year. As a result we have a large probation client base. Currently over 10,000 probationers have absconded and have active warrants for their arrest. In 2005 the Dallas Morning News newspaper ran an article detailing our probation violation problems, but until this year, no additional resources were allocated to address this problem. As you would expect, it has continued to grow.

Many times, change begins with a breath of fresh air. Ours came with Dr. Michael Noyes, who was hired as the new director of Dallas County Adult Probation Department. He brought to Dallas County years of experience from Pennsylvania, where he led several probation departments from several different levels. For Dallas County, his most critical asset and strength was what we lacked most: a new vision and fresh approach to how we administer probation and rehabilitation programs. In our daily work with our colleagues in the probation department, we learned that Dr. Noyes came in with a clear message: Under his leadership, Dallas County was going to change. Tragic events in March 2007 advanced the speed of change and highlighted the need for adaptation and innovation.

In mid-March, a murder occurred in the southeast section of Dallas; a Chevrolet Impala with 22-inch rims was at the scene. The Dallas Police Department Deployment Unit was on the lookout for this vehicle and spotted it on March 23. Undercover officers followed the car and called for marked units to initiate a felony stop. Officer Mark Timothy Nix responded to the location and attempted to stop the Impala with lights and a siren. The driver, Wesley Ruiz, refused to stop and led officers on a high-speed chase for about two miles before wrecking his car. Officer Nix tried to enter the Impala with his baton but was unsuccessful due to the tinted windows. Mr. Ruiz fired one shot through the window, mortally wounding officer Nix.

Ruiz had a history with Dallas police and with our office. In May 2006 he was placed on probation for eight years for drug possession. Four months later, he stopped reporting to his probation officer, but it wasn’t until February 12, 2007, that a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was still on the loose when Officer Nix encountered him in March.

Time for change

Soon after this tragedy, Dr. Noyes contacted newly elected Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins about a collaborative effort to address the absconder problem. Watkins informed me of his wish to participate and instructed me to meet with Dr. Noyes. Our first meeting was in April of this year, and we were accompanied by Deputy Chief Joe Costa of the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office. The meeting was very positive, and we agreed to meet every few weeks and formulate a plan to create an absconder unit. The Sheriff’s Department Warrant Division is comprised of 24 two-man squads whose responsibility is to apprehend all persons with active warrants. In our initial discussions I proposed utilizing the 72 district attorney investigators under my command. Our mission would be to pool our resources to locate and apprehend these absconders. We all agreed my investigators would be an asset to this venture, and Dr. Noyes offered to fund a full-time DA investigator for the 2008 fiscal year to work exclusively in the unit. This position was approved by the commissioners court and is now full-time within the unit; five probation officers and clerical staff comprise the unit.

We generally assign probation absconder files to about 20 DA investigators, and so far we have rotated files among them so as not to overload any particular person. We originally wanted to assign one sheriff deputy to the unit but were unable to; deputies’ primary role is to assist us in apprehending the high-risk absconders. We are hoping if we show success this fiscal year, we can assign a full-time deputy to work within the unit. We don’t put in any work shifts as it relates to tracking absconders; our office’s investigators do their work during normal work hours. When we go tactical to locate and apprehend absconders, we may do surveillance at different hours during and after our normal work schedule. And the arrest warrant execution can be done anytime of day based on the intelligence received during our surveillance.

In July 2007 we decided to target the top 20 absconders, so Greg Johnson of the Absconder Unit formulated a list that he culled from the 17 district courts in Dallas County. He gave the list to me in August, and I retrieved the absconders’ probation files. I assigned them to my supervisory investigators to do a risk assessment on each absconder and forward to their division investigators to locate. Each absconder was classified as low, medium, or high risk. Low and medium risk warrants can be carried out by DA investigators with my approval, and high risk warrants are carried out by the warrant division or local police department SWAT teams. Before any warrant is executed, a written operational plan must be approved by the chief or assistant chief investigator, and the first assistant DA is briefed.

A written operational plan is an internal document we use to outline the operation we are executing. It details the location, who is involved, the threat level, and what radio channel will be used. It also describes the house or building we will be entering, what staging location will be used, and the nearest hospital if needed. And it also includes what personnel will be participating, what uniform they will be wearing, and what vehicles they are driving if they are not DA personnel.

Before we went after anyone, Sheriff Lupe Valdez sponsored a press conference to inform the community of our new initiative, and as of September 16, we had apprehended 12 of the top 20 violators without incident. They included offenders whose crimes range from drug possession to murder. As of press time in mid-October, 20 criminals have been caught and arrested through the Absconder Unit.
    

Advice for others

These are the resources and procedures we deploy to execute these warrants and I would strongly recommend anyone to follow these guidelines as a safeguard. I am currently working on a standard operating procedure for the unit which will be in place by November.

My advice to anyone wanting to start such a unit would be to use every available law enforcement resource. Also enlist the support of your county and district judges, and get their input as to which absconders to target. We will be very aggressive over the next fiscal year to show our commissioners how successful the unit has been so that we can acquire funding for new positions to expand the program.

From a technology standpoint, employ every available resource database you have; we use Acurint LE PLUS and LEXIS NEXIS. The most useful resources we have are the Texas Workforce Commission database which any county can contract with for access. This database allows you to locate people almost instantly by finding out where they are employed or if they are receiving any type of benefits, i.e. food stamps, welfare, or unemployment compensation. There is also a National Pooling Database for law enforcement you can have access to, which will provide the location and subscriber of cell phones. This technology allows us to almost pinpoint an absconder’s whereabouts before we go to the field, thus limiting costs and wasted field trips.

In closing, I would like to encourage all counties to look into this type of program to address your local absconder problems. If I can assist you in any way via phone, mail, or even in person, please feel free to contact me (my office number is 214/653-3761. I sincerely hope this article will serve as inspiration to or as a catalyst for tracking down absconders in your jurisdiction.