Exeter resident Mark Linker applauds Luzerne County’s new rules for processing warrants that have been lifted, saying he doesn’t want anyone else sent to jail without cause.
Linker and his attorney, Laura Dennis, publicly shed light on warrant processing problems last May after he was wrongly lodged in prison on a warrant that had been lifted two weeks earlier.
Warrants are issued when someone fails to appear in county criminal court proceeding. Under the new policy, attorneys must inform a clerk of courts employee when they are filing a court order lifting a warrant “so it can be processed immediately.”
Before, these orders often were mixed in piles of other less urgent paperwork, which led to delays entering the lifted warrants into the court record system.
In Linker’s case, a county judge lifted a warrant against him when he appeared in court on May 11 related to a drunken-driving charge. The clerk of courts never entered the warrant dismissal into the record system, prompting another judge to issue a warrant against Linker on May 18 based on a district attorney’s office listing of defendants who failed to appear in court.
Linker, 45, was transported to jail when police asked for his identification while he was helping a friend with a flat tire.
The outstanding warrant database accessed by police is updated by the county sheriff’s office. Sheriff deputies personally retrieve copies of lifted warrants from judges to keep the database current, an employee said.
The new policy requires attorneys to serve time-stamped copies of lifted warrant orders in the sheriff and district attorney’s offices.
An overall record processing backlog also was a problem in the clerk of courts office, which handles all county criminal court records. Linker’s lodging in prison exposed the backlog.
Art Bobbouine, who has been overseeing the clerk of courts office since interim director Tom Pizano’s retirement in September, said the backlog has been reduced from several months to about two or three weeks for most records.
Filing priorities also have been established to ensure the most pressing matters, such as the lifted warrants, are processed first, he said, praising the staff for “stepping up.”
Interim Judicial Services and Records Division head Joan Hoggarth said the new warrant lift procedures are part of ongoing changes aimed at making operations “more efficient.”
Dennis believes the warrant changes stemmed primarily from a Times Leader article about Linker’s experience. She said her “heart skipped a beat” when she saw a notice about the change in the March issue of the Luzerne Legal Register.
“He has to be congratulated,” said Dennis. “If this hadn’t happened to him, I don’t think these changes would have been made. It’s a little victory for him.”
Linker’s experience also was a reminder that the processing of records impacts lives, Dennis said.
A single father, Linker said he had to leave his 17-year-old son unattended during the overnight prison stay and pay a $100 prison booking fee. He also lost his six-year construction job because he missed work and his boss wasn’t pleased with the prison explanation.
Linker blamed his drunken-driving charge on his reaction to the loss of a loved one and his struggles to recover from liver cancer. He said a lawyer — not Dennis — urged him to sue the county over the prison lodging, but he refused because he “doesn’t want the county’s money.”
“Hopefully it won’t happen to someone else,” Linker said.