Renton, King County municipal courts to quash bench warrants in wake of pandemic backlog

Renton judge says limited time program will reduce barriers to court access.

As outstanding warrants pile up amid the pandemic court backlog, a handful of King County municipal courts will implement a program allowing individuals to quash certain bench warrants for a limited time.

The “Back on Track” program will allow the majority of individuals with outstanding warrants to use a procedure in which they can quash their warrant and avoid being handcuffed.

Each municipality will maintain their own specific rules as to which warrants will be easily quashed, but Renton Municipal Judge Kara Murphy Richards said she would quash most warrants under $5,000 in value and as long as they do not involve domestic violence or driving under the influence charges.

With over 2,200 active warrants in Renton, Murphy Richards said the goal is to get rid of as many warrants as possible during the three-month duration of the program.

She said the pandemic has allowed people with warrants to hide out somewhat, and the closure of in-person courts and some municipal jails has not helped the problem.

Murphy Richards said warrants can impose barriers and prevent people from being employed, so they need to be dealt with in one way or another. She said most warrants are issued because people cannot access court in the first place because of barriers like transportation.

Murphy Richards said the “Back on Track” program is intended to increase accessibility and to accommodate those who may not be able to physically come into court.

“If you do not give people access to the system, then they cannot be held responsible,” she said.

Murphy Richards also said this program, in which individuals can phone the courts and deal with their warrants remotely, encourages court participation because individuals are not as fearful that a remote court appearance will lead to their arrest. She said the turnout for scheduled court appearances has increased “by far” since the Renton Municipal Court has allowed remote hearings.

Murphy Richards said the increase to court access and participation is a good thing for the justice system — for both the court and its subjects.

The “Back on Track” program will allow people to tie up their legal loose ends beginning in April through the end of June, but Murphy Richards said the program should be accessible when complete and considered as a possible permanent policy.