SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – Could a bill passed this legislative session be inadvertently helping fugitives evade capture?
In the last three years since 2016, the United States Marshal Service in Utah has arrested nearly 3,000 fugitives. Roughly 95 percent had a violent criminal history, including murder, rape, sex offenses of children and aggravated assault, according to the USMS.
“We’re fugitive hunters. That’s what we do. That’s what we do well. That’s what we’re known for,” said Matt Harris, United States Marshal, District of Utah.
But with the passing of House Bill 57, the number of fugitive arrests could be decreased.
The Electronic Information or Data Privacy Bill requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant to access stored electronic data, including information on personal devices stored with third parties.
The men and women who track down violent criminals are feeling the impact of that requirement.
“We don’t necessarily comment on state law,” Harris told ABC4 News. “But the majority of our work, 65-70 percent of the violent fugitives that we catch are state and local warrants and anytime there’s a change it affects our operations.”
Warrants allow officers to engage in activities that could violate an individual’s constitutional rights. Under HB 57, once a warrant is secured by a law enforcement agency, the person who is the subject of the warrant is notified.
Harris says the notification requirement when it comes to fugitives who have already been indicted, have active felony warrants and are intentionally evading law enforcement, is concerning.
“Looking for violent criminal fugitives, do they really need to know, when they’re on the run, how we’re looking for them? I don’t think so.”
“We want to go after the fugitive when they least expect it. When they think they’re safe. That’s what we prefer. It’s the most safe way to do it, the most intelligent way to do it and the most practical way to do it,” Harris told ABC4 News.
The law does allow for an extension. Officers must petition the court to delay notification to the fugitive.
“We do want to emphasize that, we’re not saying that law enforcement shouldn’t have access to that information,” explained Representative Craig Hall (R) West Valley City, the Chief Sponsor of the bill. “We’re just saying that if law enforcement sees a good reason why they need access to that information, they go before a judge, a neutral third party, and have the judge sign out on a warrant before they get that information.”
“Anytime that I have to take people off the street and put them inside a building, that’s less fugitives that we’re catching,” said Harris.
Harris says notification should only be required after the fugitive is apprehended and in custody.
“During the court process, through the fourth and fifth amendment, the defendant or the fugitive, have the right to know the charges brought before them. That’s an opportunity to provide the fugitive information as to how their information was obtained.”
Representative Hall says he’s worked with law enforcement “extensively” since 2018 to come up with the perfect bill.
“Were fugitive investigations taken into account?” asked ABC4’s Brittany Johnson.
“We included anybody who raised their hand and said they wanted some input in the bill. Law enforcement communicated to the legislature that they were fine with the bill. They gave it a thumbs up and that’s why the bill passed unanimously,” Hall replied.
“Let me emphasize, that no bill is perfect and if another organization or entity or individuals want to help make the bill better, we are all ears and open to suggestions as to how we can make the bill better.”