Proposal to put open arrest warrants online sparks privacy, racism concerns

By: - September 14, 2022 7:00 am

Watchdogs worry about the misuse of a plan proposed by a lawmaker that would create a public database of outstanding arrest warrants. (Photo by Andrew Brookes/Getty Images)

People would be able to check outstanding arrest warrants in a public database under a bill that has some criminal justice watchers worried about potential misuse.

The bill, introduced by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), is intended to help people who aren’t aware they have an arrest warrant until a law enforcement officer arrests them. Legislators will consider it at a Thursday committee hearing.

But some worry such a database would have unintended privacy implications, such as employers checking up on employees, landlords investigating tenants, and neighbors spying on each other.

“This can even open the door for, in extreme cases, vigilantism,” said Michael B. Mitchell Jr., assistant professor of African American studies and criminology at The College of New Jersey.

Yannick Wood, director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s criminal justice reform program, said it makes sense for people to be able to freely access their own warrant information.

“But if it is available for everyone to see, then it may be a recipe for discrimination,” Wood said.

People who have outstanding arrest warrants haven’t been convicted — and could be innocent of the offense they’re accused of, Mitchell added. Law enforcement officers and judges also can err, so making outstanding arrest warrants publicly accessible could unjustly taint people, Mitchell said.

It’s also “a double standard,” considering how the state carefully protects the identities of police officers who are accused of wrongdoing, he added.

Such a database should, then, have “a secured verification process that only the person subject to the warrant can use,” Wood said.

Coughlin didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

This is the sixth time he has introduced the bill, which has never made it to a committee vote since he first introduced it in 2012. Lawmakers in the Assembly’s law and public safety committee will consider it when they meet at the Statehouse in Trenton Thursday.

Outstanding arrest warrants in the state’s traffic and municipal complaint systems — sometimes issued after people ignore or forget to pay traffic or municipal citations — would be included in the proposed database, according to the legislation.

Mitchell said that, too, could be problematic, because people of color likely would be disproportionately impacted.

“Black and Hispanic individuals are more likely to be economically disenfranchised, so those motorists may not be able to pay traffic citations,” Mitchell said. “And we know driving while Black is a phenomenon. So there could be racial disparities in who’s pulled over and cited.”


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.