RUMFORD, Maine — Fugitives have learned an easy way to escape justice: simply by changing their ZIP codes.
On Dec. 12 in Brooklyn, N.Y., Peter Figoski, a 22-year veteran with the New York Police Department, was shot and killed by Lamont Pride, a man who was wanted in North Carolina for another shooting.
Pride had been arrested twice this past fall in New York on the Greensboro, N.C., warrant but was released both times because the warrant was for in-state extradition only.
The warrant had been entered into the National Crime Information Center database, which alerts law enforcement officials if a person has a warrant in another state.
Nationwide, an estimated 1.8 million warrants are entered into the NCIC.
Even with this information, law enforcement’s hands are tied if the warrant states it is non-extraditable. The officer has no choice but to let the fugitive go.
Norman Croteau, district attorney for Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties, said most states are plagued with criminals trying to avoid the justice system in other states. The problem boils down to resources, Croteau said.
He said expenses can rack up when transporting a fugitive from state to state, because of lost manpower, plane tickets, hotels and other costs.
“For some states with a large number of extraditable warrants, it can be financially crippling,” he said.
In Maine, each prosecutorial district has an extradition account that is funded when a criminal fails to appear in court. That person’s bail money is requested to be turned over to the district for the extradition account, Croteau said.
However, there is a yearly cap of $20,000, he said.
“It’s a resource issue and as a state or district attorney, you have to set your priorities on who needs to be extradited,” Croteau said.
Rahoda Cook, who founded Citizens United to Find Fugitives, agreed with Croteau.
“Its not a moral issue,” she said. “It comes down to resources, and it shows how deep the economic times have affected us.”
Cook, who lives in Colorado, started the nonprofit group, known as CUFF, 14 years ago after she fell victim to a con artist who had five outstanding warrants in Florida for similar crimes.
Cook said the process of locating him and extraditing him back to Florida took three years of hard work on her part.
CUFF has since worked in conjunction with law enforcement in several states to push the issue of extradition and to find fugitives who are avoiding being prosecuted, Cook said.
“It really comes down to changing the mind-set of these cases in the public eyes and showing they need to fund law enforcement agencies,” she said. “Until they are willing to do that, no one is safe.”
Cases can be found across the country that highlight the issue of states refusing to extradite criminals on outstanding warrants.
In one case in June 2010 in Tampa, Fla., Dontae Morris, a man with a non-extraditable warrant for writing bad checks, shot and killed two police officers.
In December 2010 a tip led a local NBC News reporter to a man who had a non-extraditable warrant and was living in Overland Park, Kan., less than 15 to 20 miles from Missouri, where the warrant originated. The warrant was related to a six-year-old charge in which the man had sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl.
After calling police in Kansas, the reporter was told there was nothing authorities in that state could do because the warrant out of Missouri was non-extraditable.
Authorities in Kansas filed for a governor’s warrant, which is issued when one state requests the extradition of a fugitive from another state.
The governor’s warrant was approved and the man was arrested by the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department’s fugitive squad and extradited to Missouri after years of avoiding justice.
Resource programs for law enforcement to help catch fugitives also have been hindered.
In March 2011, the U.S. Marshals Service ended a nationwide program known as Fugitive Safe Surrender. The program allowed fugitives accused of nonviolent crimes to safely surrender themselves at churches.
Under the program, 34,000 people in 20 cities have turned themselves in since 2005. Of those who surrendered, 10 percent faced felony charges, including rape, robbery, child abductions and murder.
Spokesman Jeff Carter said in previous news articles that funding for the program was dropped because the agency could not sustain the unfunded initiative.
Andrew Matulis, assistant district attorney in Androscoggin County, said he processes two to five fugitive-from-justice cases each month.
Matulis, who used to work as an intern in the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office, said he saw about the same number of cases there. With those numbers, that would mean Androscoggin and Cumberland counties see 24 to 60 cases a year.
Matulis works diligently to ensure other states will extradite those criminals.
During court proceedings, judges are allowed to set bail and release fugitives in extradition cases, Matulis said.
“Most of the time I promote that no bail be set, so the individual doesn’t have a chance to flee to another state,” he said.
Croteau said a fair number of fugitives are brought back to Maine through the extradition process.
“Some of these cases need to be extradited regardless of the cost,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a free ticket.”
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