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Policy on court no-shows clarified

Reinstated county ordinance targets repeat offenders


Multnomah County’s attempt to produce a consequence for offenders who fail to show up for repeated community court dates took a turn Thursday when the Multnomah County District Attorney spelled out in detail how police will use controversial Interfering with a Peace Officer ordinances.

Last year, Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill decided the IPO ordinances might help Portland deal with one of its most vexing problems — a subset of the homeless population who commit nuisance crimes and ignore citations requiring them to attend community court. Basically, offenders could repeatedly blow off court dates and nothing would happen because citation violations are not considered serious enough to produce the consequence of a warrant for failure to appear in court and subsequent jailing. Only about one in three people issued citations have appeared at their community court hearings.

Underhill agreed last summer to a pilot project in which police officers would first provide a warning to people found littering or drinking in public spaces. When officers returned and found offenders continuing their illegal behaviors, they could arrest the offenders on the more serious IPO charge. An IPO offense can merit jail time, though most IPO offenders spend less than 24 hours in jail.

But according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Chuck Sparks, due to poor communication between the DA and the police bureau, it was discovered that officers were using the IPO policy against homeless campers — not what the DA intended.

In addition, defense attorneys pointed out that the widespread use of IPO might not be constitutional. It could, for instance, be used to take to jail people who commit traffic offenses. The new policy was suspended.

Last week the rules were clarified and re-instituted. Police can begin issuing IPOs only if they have previously given offenders a warning, and have documented the warning in a police report. Also, the offender must be given the option of a referral to a social service agency rather than jail. That supports the original intent of community court, which gives low-level citation offenders who attend hearings the option of social service help or community service.

The new policy spells out that violations such as traffic offenses will not be options for IPO citations, but says camping on public property or erecting illegal structures still can be considered IPO offenses. In addition, littering, alcohol on public property, public drinking, and indecent exposure can lead to IPO charges and trips to the county jail.

In the past, some saw the IPO policy as targeting the subset of the homeless called Road Warriors — young travelers who commit nuisance crimes in the downtown and Old Town areas and refuse offers of housing or other kinds of social servcie help.

But French says the new guidelines are not intended to target any one group. “It is designed to help the service-resistant more than any other prior efforts,” he says.

Last summer, after police took about a dozen street offenders to jail using the IPO policy, and issued failure to appear warrants for another six, word spread to police that a few of the chronic offenders had decided to leave the Portland area. French says some may choose to do so given the consequence of staying around Portland.

“They’ll be arrested, obviously, if they are still around town,” he says.