Polk County residents who have warrants or are listed on a sex-offender registry now have three choices, Stoughton said: They could seek refuge at a shelter and risk arrest, they could try to sneak into one and risk a harsh response, or they could stay at home during one of the most dangerous storms to approach Florida in modern history. Polk County is in the middle of the state; Winter Haven, where the sheriff’s office is located, is about 50 miles from the Gulf Coast and roughly 70 from the Atlantic Ocean.
The directive “puts [affected residents] in danger,” Stoughton said. But it also “puts the officers and other first responders who are going to have to rescue them in danger. It puts their families and their dependents in danger.”
The problem is compounded by the sheer number of Floridians with active arrest warrants. In 2011, the Miami Herald reported that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement had more than 100,000 active warrants for felony offenses. The state’s large counties also had significant backlogs, the Herald found: Palm Beach County had 58,000 outstanding warrants, while nearby Broward County, where the city of Ft. Lauderdale is located, had an “astounding” 219,000. (Numbers for Polk County weren’t immediately available.)
Some of the warrants in Palm Beach and Broward were for serious offenses. But the overwhelming majority were for misdemeanors and other minor crimes, including traffic offenses, failure to appear in court, and unpaid court fees. A resident might not be aware there is a warrant out for his or her arrest in minor cases, Stoughton noted. As a result, someone seeking refuge could arrive at a Polk County shelter with family, discover he or she has an active arrest warrant, and be hauled off to jail during a hurricane.
If some Polk County residents stay away from shelters, it won’t be the first time people have avoided help for fear of legal consequences. When Hurricane Harvey struck Texas last month, members of Houston’s large community of undocumented immigrants feared they would be arrested and deported if they sought assistance from authorities during the storm. City officials responded by telling them they wouldn’t be targeted at shelters and food banks, and federal immigration-enforcement agencies said they would scale back their operations at rescue facilities.
After the sheriff’s department’s posts received national attention, a representative told The Daily Beast that officers have to arrest people they encounter if they have outstanding warrants. But Stoughton said no such legal obligation exists—officers can use their own discretion.
He recalled an example from his own time as a police officer when he pulled over a woman with three young children in her car during a routine traffic stop. She was from a different city and was the children’s sole caregiver. Stoughton discovered she had an active warrant for a minor misdemeanor related to court fines, but after discussing it with his supervisor, he decided not to arrest her for it.