As courthouses closed and court hearings went virtual during the pandemic, some Vermonters didn’t know how to address their criminal cases and racked up arrest warrants as a result.
A new clinic aims to help some people settle these arrest warrants and prevent future conflicts with police.
The Chittenden County Public Defender’s Office, the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office and Vermont Legal Aid are hosting an over-the-phone warrant clinic up until June 25 to clear arrest warrants and reschedule criminal court dates for people in the Chittenden County court system.
Courts can issue arrest warrants when someone doesn’t show up for a scheduled hearing, said Sarah George, Chittenden County state’s attorney. Police can also request an arrest warrant from a judge if they have probable cause to believe someone has committed a crime.
The number of warrants swelled when courts closed their doors during the pandemic, George said, because some people were confused about how to settle their hearings when everything went remote.
“Most of the arrest warrants that we have are really people who just kind of got lost in the shuffle,” George said.
Some people may not even know an arrest warrant was issued for them if they unknowingly missed a hearing and weren’t contacted by the courts, George said.
George said outstanding arrest warrants create the potential for conflicts between citizens and police that she’d like to head off, citing traffic stops as an example. If a police officer pulls over a car and realizes that a warrant had been issued for the driver, that can morph from a routine interaction to a costly and time-consuming arrest, she said.
“You might be taken into custody or put in jail overnight and lose your job or lose your kids,” George said.
Those instances are rare in Chittenden County compared to the rest of the state because George doesn’t request cash bail, as she argues that allows the justice system to unfairly punish poor people. The clinic aims to advance those efforts, she said, and unload stress from people who have a warrant on their record.
To take advantage of the clinic, people can call 802-503-0005, ext. 255, a phone number managed by Vermont Legal Aid, to check their warrant status. There, they can have a confidential conversation with an attorney about their warrant status and be connected with a defense attorney to schedule a court hearing.
“Many of our clients worry about their arrest warrant status,” Mairead O’Reilly, attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, said in a press release about the clinics.
“Even just going to work or to the grocery store can be stressful when you are unsure if there’s a warrant out for your arrest,” she said. “By providing information and a straightforward way to resolve the warrant issue, we hope this clinic will help community members feel less fearful and more comfortable participating in community life.”
The Attorney General’s Office also hosted expungement clinics in May 2020 and March 2021 in an effort to clear eligible past criminal convictions to help Vermonters have easier access to jobs and housing.
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