Thousands Run Free Despite Warrants

Roy Ratliff, a wanted man with a criminal past, was accused of raping a 19-year-old relative last year, yet he was free to kidnap two teenage girls at gunpoint just last week.

The details of his final crime and its dramatic ending may seem unique, but the circumstances that allowed it to occur are not.

Thousands of criminals, many violent, remain on the lam despite outstanding felony warrants for their arrests.

A warrant for Ratliff's arrest on five counts of sexual assault had been issued in October 2001, three months after he was paroled, yet he was never apprehended. Over the last 13 years, he had been convicted three times on felony charges, including burglary and drug charges.

Ratliff was shot dead by police last week when he refused to surrender after police found him with the two teens he had kidnapped 12 hours earlier from a lovers' lane in Lancaster, Calif.

According to the FBI's National Crime Information Center, which police use for background checks on suspects, there are more than 789,000 outstanding warrants for felonies and serious misdemeanors filed in their system, but the actual number of warrants in the United States is actually much higher.

In California alone, there are 252,000 outstanding felony warrants, according to the office of the state attorney general. Of these warrants, approximately 2,800 are for homicide, 640 are for kidnapping, and 1,800 are for sexual assault suspects.

In Florida, the total number of outstanding warrants, both felony and misdemeanor, is 325,000, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. There are 898 homicide warrants, 273 kidnapping warrants and 565 sexual assault warrants outstanding.

A large percentage of outstanding warrants are never entered by states because they are not required to file their warrants into the FBI's national system.

Attorney General John Ashcroft told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America Tuesday that the FBI's national system is helpful to law enforcement officials around the country, despite its shortcomings.

"There are some lags and some deficiencies in getting all the state information in," Ashcroft said. "But most of those warrants we're talking about are state warrants — when a law enforcement person detains a person, arrests them, pulls them over, they can find out whether they're wanted on a warrant in some other area."

A suspect with an outstanding warrant can often go without being apprehended by authorities until the suspect has done something to bring attention to himself. If a suspect is in the national system, any outstanding warrants will show up during a routine check during a traffic stop — even if it's across the country from where the warrant was issued.

If the suspect is not in the system, the warrant might not be discovered. Ashcroft says the federal government encourages states to share their information.

"It's important for us to get more names, more information, and we'll do that," he said. "We're encouraging that all the time."

Price Tag Lifted

Filing such data costs states time and, until a few years ago, money.

According to the National Crime Information Center, states were required to pay for extradition costs once a suspect was found. In 1996 that extradition limitation was lifted, and more states began entering their number of warrants into the national system, according to the NCIC.

Georgia and South Carolina made some adjustments to their filing system this summer, adding thousands of warrants to the NCIC list.

Some states are unable to supply the number of total misdemeanors and felony outstanding warrants, because they don't keep them collectively on file. In states that do, the departments that oversee that information differ from state to state. For instance, the attorney general's office supplies that information in California, while the department of law enforcement has control over that data in Florida.

ABCNEWS.com's Maryann Bennett contributed to this report.

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