Patience is the key for elusive fine-dodgers

March 06, 1995|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,Sun Staff Writer

The ringing of Felipe Rivero's doorbell frightens him so much that he mutes the television, shushes the dog and stands still so the floors won't creak. Mr. Rivero thinks it's the police and wants to avoid jail for dodging a $350 District Court fine four years ago.

But the police never have rung even once, and Mr. Rivero won't be incarcerated. In fact, the Police Department wants to drop a warrant for his arrest. He is proving too cagey to capture.

Every year, hundreds of fine-dodgers in misdemeanor cases get away without paying District Court fines -- because of heavy warrant caseloads and an emphasis on serious offenders. Currently, 394 people owe close to $70,000 in unpaid criminal fines in Baltimore County. Each year the county collects about $300,000 in fines.

"It's a question of where you spend the manpower," Deputy State's Attorney Howard Mercker said. "There is a lot of money out there that could come back to the state if there is an effort made to collect."

After three years, county police ask the District Court to invalidate warrants for fugitives they haven't caught. Most requests are granted.

Similar fine-dodging exists throughout the area. Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford and Carroll counties indefinitely keep misdemeanor warrants for fine-skippers on file. But officials say that there always will be those who get away without paying.

"I don't consider it is a huge problem here," said Baltimore Administrative Judge Mary Ellen T. Rinehardt. "My feeling is that we have a larger population of indigent defendants. Judges take that into consideration and sometimes will use community service instead."

Warrant officers generally capture their fugitives. But if they haven't caught them within the three years, they probably never will, Baltimore County administrators say. After visiting homes, checking driver records and conducting interviews, hunting for the people is a bad use of limited resources, they say.

In recent months, county police have asked the court to drop about 50 warrants for fugitives they couldn't find.

"Do you put a 24-hour stakeout on someone with a $25 fine?" said Lt. David P. Wolinski of the technical services bureau. "We don't really want to do that."

Instead, the police rely on slip-ups to catch most fine-dodgers. A traffic violation, another criminal arrest or even filing a criminal complaint against someone else will give police enough information to track them down. But if the fine-dodgers stay out of the limelight, they probably never will have to pay.

For those who can't outfox the police, they still can avoid the fine -- if they're willing to spend a day in jail for every $10 they owe.

The typical fine-dodger is convicted of misdemeanors, such as telephone abuse, shoplifting and disorderly conduct. Faced with court-imposed fines, some go on the lam, hiding inside their houses or training neighbors, friends and family to lie about their whereabouts.

Mr. Rivero, 28, was convicted in 1990 of telephone misuse, battery and harassment of his girlfriend.

"I'm not going to jail behind her," said Mr. Rivero, while collecting mail from his box at the end of his driveway in Dundalk. "And I'm not paying no fine. The judge was wrong. She was too hard on me. She knew how much I made, and she still tacked on 300-and-something-dollars."

Mr. Rivero, a grocery store clerk, said he will live like a model citizen to avoid police attention.

Alice Delight, 41, is another going the low-profile route. She won't cross the street except at a crosswalk.

"They won't even get me for jaywalking," she said.

Ms. Delight owes $60 in fines. She was convicted in 1991 of pilfering clothes at Security Square Mall, and Judge Patricia S. Pytash gave her time to raise the money. But when police came looking for her at work and in her old Owings Mills neighborhood, she was gone.

"It wasn't all that hard, no," said Ms. Delight, after being contacted by a Sun reporter who left a business card with her former neighbor. "I knew they weren't going to spend all their time looking for me."

She was right. Ms. Delight's case has been closed.

Police will try to serve a warrant, Lieutenant Wolinski said, but if people move or change their names, "it makes it tough."

Like others interviewed for this story, Larry H. Causion would not be hard to find. He's in the phone book.

Mr. Causion owes a $250 fine for shoplifting. He said he was trying to return a pair of pants that were too small for his 12-year-old son. The judge sided with the store manager, who said Mr. Causion was trying to return stolen pants for a refund, and ordered the fine paid by Nov. 11.

Mr. Causion said he didn't have the money. He moved from his East Northern Parkway home but left the court no forwarding address.

"I'm in the mortuary business," Mr. Causion said. He doesn't get paid unless someone dies. "They caught me at a bad time. I have every intention on doing the right thing."

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