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Kootenai County arrest, bench warrants grow along with population boom

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 17, 2018, 4:18 p.m.

The Coeur d'Alene Resort photographed on Wednesday, May 31, 2017. Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
The Coeur d'Alene Resort photographed on Wednesday, May 31, 2017. Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

One of the burgeoning areas in the Pacific Northwest, scenic Kootenai County’s population has increased by over 50,000 residents since 1998.

But with that growth has come an increase in crime and noncompliance with the court system.

Currently, Kootenai County has 4,565 active warrants filed in its courthouse, 254 of the felony variety.

Most of the overall tally are bench warrants for failing to appear in court for misdemeanor offenses.

Last year, 4,345 new warrants were issued, a significant jump from a 2011 total of 3,149.

In 1990, a time when its population hovered around 70,000 compared to today’s 154,000, Kootenai County doled out just 1,189 overall warrants.

Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh believes the increase is more complex than a population spike.

“Historically our crime numbers have been higher per capita than other counties,” McHugh said. “And I attribute that to being a popular tourist destination, being located at the intersection of major highways, and being located next to a larger metropolitan area.”

Most of the outstanding warrants belong to people who don’t live in the Coeur d’Alene, officials said, a sizable portion hailing from Eastern Washington.

Naturally, Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger isn’t happy with the total.

“I don’t think that any warrants are an acceptable amount,” said Wolfinger, who cited a lack of individual responsibility among those with warrants. “Since many of the misdemeanor warrants are for failure to appear, people could get them quashed by just contacting the court for a new court date and actually showing up.”

Neighboring Spokane County, which has roughly 499,000 residents, currently has over 10,000 active warrants, most of them failure to appear bench warrants. About a quarter of them – 2,784 – are for felonies

In Kootenai County, roughly 6 percent of active warrants are felony.

In 2017, McHugh said, the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office issued 1,326 felony warrants. All but 125 were served, he said.

Kootenai County has its share of unresolved warrants that go back decades, not all of them for heinous crimes.

The oldest concerns 43-year-old Montana resident Joyce Schweigert, who in 1987 refused a breathalyzer test after rolling her vehicle near Coeur d’Alene. After she was charged with a DUI, according to an old, yellowing warrant on file in the jail, she skipped her ensuing court date.

But would the now-74-year-old woman be prosecuted if she was ever stopped within the county limits?

“If the officer(s) and/or other witnesses involved (in the DUI charge) are available, in most cases we can proceed with a prosecution,” McHugh said.

Many of the active warrants are derived from drug and burglary offenses.

As in most states, unresolved traffic citations won’t lead to warrants in Idaho. But Wolfinger remembers a time when a failure to pay a fine led to a warrant.

“Idaho used to issue warrants for failure to pay misdemeanor fines, but they quit doing that several years ago and now just send those to collections,” he said. “That reduced the misdemeanor warrants significantly.”