Kansas City Police made arrests based on rescinded warrants, records show
Records obtained by the Missouri Independent show that, during a software transition in 2021, the Kansas City Police department had been warned of possible technical issues that could lead to false arrests, but a court official said those risks were “ignored.”
Kansas City police arrested at least four people on invalid warrants in 2021 following its transition from one tracking software program to another, The Missouri Independent has learned.
It’s unclear from the records obtained by The Independent how many individuals were mistakenly arrested. The department had been warned of possible technical issues that could lead to false arrests, according to a court official who said those risks were “ignored.”
In March 2021, then-Deputy Police Chief Mike Hicks emailed staffers at City Hall asking for information technology employees to help troubleshoot issues with the warrant entry and cancellation process.
“Over the past several weeks, KCPD has arrested four persons for municipal warrants that showed…as valid that were later determined by the Municipal Court to not be valid warrants,” Hicks said in the email, which was obtained by The Independent.
He went on: “This is a priority due to the liability exposure of arrests made on warrants that were supposed to be canceled in MULES.”
MULES is the “Missouri uniform law enforcement system,” a statewide communications system managed by the Missouri Highway Patrol.
The problem arose when the department switched from its previous warrant program, REJIS, to MULES, according to the email thread, which included members of the Kansas City Police Department and city officials.
Megan Pfannenstiel, director of the municipal court, replied to others on the thread that a year and a half after the switch she was “bringing up many issues of individuals falsely arrested or held because the warrants are not being cleared from MULES.”
Pfannenstiel said in the 2021 email that the police department had been warned such an issue was possible when it switched systems.
“The group tasked with this project were in such a hurry to cut ties with the REJIS systems they appeared to ignore the raised concerns and have increased the city’s costs,” Pfannenstiel wrote. “Even knowing the potential pitfalls, KCPD went forward with the projects.”
Hicks’ email does not include the names of the affected individuals.
The emails were provided to the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity, or MORE2, by the Kansas City Police Department as part of a request under Missouri’s Sunshine Law. They were then turned over to The Independent.
Officer Alayna Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the Kansas City Police Department, said in an email to The Independent that determining how long the issue may have gone on would require searching through emails to and from Hicks, who is now retired.
It would take a lot of time, she said, “to attempt and identify the length of time this occurred.”
Asked about the court’s warning before KCPD switched systems, Gonzalez said as technology advances, the department adapts “to ensure we are utilizing our web applications and software effectively and efficiently.”
“MULES continues to be updated by (the Missouri State Highway Patrol) and the transition has been largely successful,” she said.
Gonzalez said the department “will continue to work tirelessly” to ensure the community’s safety and privacy.
Fourth Amendment issues
In an interview with The Independent, Pfannenstiel estimated between six and 12 people were either mistakenly arrested on warrants that had been canceled or interacted with police and were let go despite having an active warrant for their arrest.
She estimated the people mistakenly arrested were each held for a few hours.
Pfannenstiel said she wasn’t sure if similar mistaken arrests happened before KCPD stopped using REJIS’s software, but said it was less likely because the court also uses REJIS, meaning the systems communicate easily.
The issue stemmed from a workaround after KCPD dropped REJIS. Following the switch, the municipal court generates a report every 15 minutes and sends it to the Missouri Highway Patrol to upload to MULES, but mistakes in the reports led the patrol to be unsure how to update the warrant information, leading to wrongful arrests, Pfannenstiel said.
Ben Trachtenberg, associate dean of academic affairs and a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law, said in an interview that, under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, such an arrest could violate a person’s Fourth Amendment right if the police department were found to be reckless.
The Fourth Amendment protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” including arbitrary arrests.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in 2009 that an arrest stemming from a bad warrant isn’t necessarily a Fourth Amendment violation if the person was arrested “based on reasonable but mistaken assumptions.” The amendment “does not demand all possible precision,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in dissent that the majority underestimated the need for a “forceful” rule barring evidence obtained through an illegal search from being used against a defendant in court and “the gravity of recordkeeping errors in law enforcement.”
Jamie Cook, associate general counsel for the police department, suggested a temporary fix in reply to the 2021 email thread. The city, she said, could pay REJIS to transfer all warrant entry and warrant cancellation transactions to MULES.
“However, this does cost money,” Cook said.
Pfannenstiel told those on the email thread that the court — which, at the time, had a budget less than 1/10th the size of KCPD’s — did not have the funds to pay for the fix.
The city allocated $254.6 million to police during the 2021 fiscal year compared to $18.3 million for the court. In the current fiscal year, the court’s budget is less than 1/20th the size of KCPD’s.
“I do agree that the city is at a substantial risk for arresting someone on an invalid warrant,” Pfannenstiel said in her 2021 email, “but again, that is not necessarily the court’s problem to solve at this point.”
The email does not specify how much the solution Cook suggested would cost.
Pfannenstiel told The Independent this week that, at the time of the email exchange, she was frustrated.
“I was bringing up these concerns, but…nobody was, kind of, acting on it at my speed of trying to say we need to make this a high priority,” she said.
Pfannenstiel said she recently received a report where there should have been a warrant out for an individual, but it didn’t show up in MULES. An officer came in contact with the individual but didn’t know to take them into custody.
But she said that was better than mistaken arrests because individuals’ liberties weren’t violated.
The Missouri Highway Patrol did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cathy Dean, president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, reached by phone, said she could not comment on the situation because she had not seen the emails in question. She declined to answer any other questions.
Mayor Quinton Lucas’ office did not respond to requests for comment.
The number of arrests made on faulty or “ghost warrants” is hard to quantify, but it can affect people for years, according to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering criminal justice, and The Guardian newspaper.
One New Orleans man was arrested in 2019 on a 25-year-old warrant. He had also been arrested in 2014, 2015 and 2017 based on a 2006 conviction, though his probation period “should have long since expired.”
The arrests, which didn’t result in further charges, along with minor probation violations cost the man his job three times and his marriage, the news organizations reported.
Being arrested is a huge disruption to someone’s life, Trachtenberg said, and can be “humiliating and undignified.”
“As a society, we tolerate all of the bad effects of arrests because we think they’re necessary for police functions, at least sometimes,” he said, “but anytime someone is arrested who isn’t supposed to be arrested, they’re suffering all this for nothing.”
Pfannenstiel said the only warrants the municipal court issues are for defendants’ failure to appear. For example, if an individual violates the terms of their probation, the court issues a summons, but if they do not appear, a judge can issue a warrant.
Something as simple as failing to pay a speeding ticket and not showing up to court to dispute it could result in a warrant.
“If somebody had some paperwork problem that they then fixed,” Trachtenberg said, “it’s going to degrade people’s faith in the system if they get arrested for something when the warrant should have been canceled.”
This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.