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Use of bench warrants still not certain

April 7, 2009

Attorneys have settled a federal case that led to the Marion Superior Court scrapping its practice of issuing bench warrants for the arrest of people who'd failed to appear in civil cases, but a statewide investigation of whether state law allows judges to issue these warrants remains ongoing.

A settlement came March 30 in the case of Patrick Thompson v. Marion County Sheriff's Office, et al, 1:08-CV-00481, which arose from the man's August 2007 arrest. Thompson was detained for five days in the Marion County Jail after being arrested on a bench warrant for not appearing at a child support hearing about three years earlier. He told police he'd thought the child support case involving his then-17-year-old child was finished and closed.

The case tied in to a similar one that Indianapolis firm Waples & Hanger had filed in the Southern District of Indiana, and both prompted U.S. Magistrate Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson to review the practice concerning bench warrants.

The Marion Superior Court's four-judge executive committee investigated the process and in January recalled about 4,100 bench warrants in civil cases, turning to a new policy that urges the use of body attachments requiring multiple notification steps. A body attachment requires that when people fail to show up for a hearing or ignore a court order, they must be given a second chance to attend and explain themselves. It also allows them to pay the amount due and be released immediately.

The second part of the settlement involves Indianapolis paying Thompson $67,5000, according to a news release from Waples & Hanger.

In February, Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi asked Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller to weigh in on the issue with an advisory opinion. No opinion has been issued, and a spokesman for the state office couldn't be reached to comment on the status of that.

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