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Curious customs

Technological advance puts more Georgians on federal wanted list


You're asking yourself: What have I got in common with Cincinnati Bengals has-been James Brooks, a former all-pro running back and self-described 40-year-old illiterate reduced to working as a security guard who has been jailed for owing more than $100,000 as a deadbeat dad?

Well, probably not much, apart from middle-age spread -- unless you've forgotten to pay a traffic ticket or neglected to answer a citation for playing your stereo too loud, and you're planning a trip abroad. Then, you may very well face the same welcome that Brooks received last month at Hartsfield International Airport when he stepped off a plane from England and into the waiting arms of U.S. Customs agents.

As a side effect to a recent upgrade to Georgia's criminal information network, federal agents who one might expect to be seeking out terrorists, drug smugglers and dangerous fugitives are suddenly in the business of apprehending grannies with overdue parking tickets and other minor scofflaws.

That's because, as of August, small-time offenders, folks with unpaid fines and those who failed to appear in traffic court -- anyone, in fact, for whom an arrest warrant has been issued -- now appear on the National Criminal Information Center database maintained by the FBI and used as an online catalogue of perps at-large by the feds, as well as by most state and local law-enforcement agencies.

Although Georgia Bureau of Investigation officials and local police see this change as a great leap forward, the move has prompted a high-level debate as to whether federal agents should have to deal with the distraction of busting people who are wanted by a local jurisdiction for, say, an unpaid traffic fine.

Someone like Cheri Thompson, for instance. Thompson (whose travails originally were described in a Sept. 25 CL column by Glen Slattery) was nailed last month at Hartsfield by armed Customs agents on a Roswell warrant for failing to pay the $62 fine for a 4-year-old ticket for driving with expired tags.

She was detained (not "taken into custody," objects a Customs spokesman) in a holding cell while a Roswell cop traveled down to the airport; then she was led through the busy terminal in handcuffs and driven to the Roswell city jail, where she was booked before her husband posted her $2,700 bond.

Thompson eventually managed to beat the rap by showing the judge she'd actually paid the original fine. Although she's angry at her city for issuing an arrest warrant based on a clerical error, she's truly stunned that her apprehension was undertaken by federal agents whom she believed were more interested in nabbing suitcase bombs than soccer moms.

Thompson's case would seem to be an extreme example, but she says the agents told her of other miscreants they'd recently captured, such as the woman who hadn't paid a fine for overgrown weeds in her yard, or the guy wanted for violating his local noise ordinance.

"I got the impression they were bemused at having to do this," Thompson says. "They seemed resigned to it, like they saw it as kind of absurd."

That was the same reaction CL got when it contacted U.S. Customs spokesman James Michie, who initially was incredulous that his department would bother with anyone who didn't appear on the FBI fugitive database or another such federal watch list.

After checking around, a surprised Michie explained how the system works: Customs officers routinely cross-check the FBI's criminal database against the Advanced Passenger Information System, a database drawn from the passenger lists of every airline flying into the country. When a warrant comes up, they catch the wanted traveler at the airport. That's how both Brooks and Thompson were collared.

However, Thompson had taken several international flight since her warrant was first issued. How was she able to slip through? Because, before July, minor offenses such as hers were not posted to the FBI database, only the list of Georgia warrants maintained by the GBI.

According to Roy Weise, a senior advisor to the FBI's Criminal Justice Information System, each state kept all its warrants on a state system, but was expected to post only those for felonies and misdemeanors for which it was willing to extradite the suspect. When Georgia upgraded its system in July, however, it effectively uploaded its entire criminal database -- minor offenses and murders alike -- to the national system.

FBI policy-makers will meet in December to determine whether Georgia interpreted the FBI's invitation to rely on the national system "too liberally," Weise says.

The GBI's Paul Heppner, who oversees the Georgia criminal database, says he simply "merged" the state's system with the FBI's as a cost-cutting measure to save Georgia millions of dollars, as well as to ensure that as many warrants are available to local police and federal cops as possible.

Local jurisdictions are responsible for ensuring the warrants they post are up to date, Heppner says. Otherwise, police across the state are encouraged to list as many as they can on the national database, he says, even if that means a traveler could be detained in Honolulu for not paying a Georgia traffic ticket.

"One lesson we learned after September 11 is that we have to be better at sharing information," he says. "Our position at the GBI is that local law enforcement officers should have as much information as possible."

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