Originally published 3/11/2014 and updated 6/13/2014
Thousands of criminals wanted for crimes in Minnesota – and across the nation – are escaping justice simply by crossing state lines. That's the finding of a joint investigation by KARE 11 and USA Today
"To charge someone, especially with a serious offense, and then later say we're not going to bring them back and prosecute them, I am dumbfounded," says Scott Burns, Executive Director of the National District Attorneys Association. "It is unconscionable."
He's talking about what our investigation discovered in a national FBI database – a list of outstanding arrest warrants for felony level crimes all across the country.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, USA Today obtained the complete list for one day last year.
Suspect's names were blocked out. But not their crimes – including murder, kidnapping, rape and armed robbery.
But we discovered that when a warrant is entered into the national system, there's an "extradition" code – indicating whether authorities are willing to go after suspects if they're caught in another state. One of those codes is "no extradition" across state lines.
We wanted to know how many fugitive warrants from Minnesota were marked "no extradition" – code number "4" in the computer.
The answer? More than 7,700 on that day…including one for homicide.
Turns out that murder suspect was caught before he left the state. But according to the database, some criminals – including alleged rapists – get away even if they're caught across state lines.
"It is disturbing," says Donna Dunn of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Violence.
She says a rape victim might feel, "I don't have a sense of justice being achieved if no one cares enough to have this person brought back to face justice."
KARE 11 discovered police even have a nick-name for the warrants. They're called "stay away warrants."
Stay away…and authorities won't come get you.
Here's an example. Javier Guerra was wanted after a string of crimes in two Minnesota counties including burglary, kidnapping, and sexual assault.
Records show he was stopped in Texas and held by police on a warrant from Minnesota. But Guerra was released because Minnesota authorities decided not to bring him back.
While free, records show Guerra murdered his 19-year-old girlfriend. Now, he's serving life in a Texas State prison.
Here's another example. A Minnesota man charged with raping his 11-year-old step-daughter.
According to the computer code, his warrant is listed "no extradition".
And the same things is happening nationwide.
The breakdown in the system even surprises some criminals. In a jailhouse interview, Lamont Pride said, "I was surprised they actually let me walk out of there with a warrant for my arrest."
He was wanted in North Carolina when he killed a police officer in New York.
Kristin Kozak was wanted in Maryland when she fatally shot her husband in the head.
According to the USA Today computer analysis of the active criminal warrants, authorities have decided they won't extradite –or simply pick up —186,873 wanted felons nationwide.
In fact, when we ran the numbers for Hennepin County – Minnesota's largest – we discovered that out of 4,518 warrants listed in the FBI's database that day, almost 3,975 were coded "no extradition."
That's more than 8 out of 10.
We wanted to ask Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman about that. Instead, we were told to talk to his top assistant, David Brown. "Where it's a serious offense, and they're gonna do time," he told us, "we bring them back.
Brown says the numbers are misleading because many of the warrants are issued by judges for suspects who don't show up in court or for criminals who violate probation. He says the County Attorney's office doesn't handle those.
But he acknowledged money means some criminals do go free.
"For some less serious cases, we'll do an evaluation. Is this a theft case where we may spend more money to bring this person back than we'd ever reasonably get in restitution, where they're not going to do any prison time – or any meaningful jail time? Then we make a decision not to extradite them," he said in an interview.
So, what does the County Attorney's office consider to be "meaningful" jail time?
Brown says each case is judged individually. But when we asked to see the county's own guidelines for extradition, we discovered that Hennepin County generally won't extradite from another state unless the jail term is "at least 36 months".
That's three years.
Any less, and a criminal may go free -- simply by making a run for a state border. Critics say, in those cases, the long arm of the law turns out to be short.
"The system has to be fixed," says Scott Burns. "And we need to sit down with prosecutors and law enforcement, with funders, legislators, and address this problem.