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Get out of jail free, then flee

Sunday, January 26, 2014
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The recent snafu involving the Schenectady and Albany jails and a prisoner who was mistakenly released would be funny if it hadn’t been so potentially dangerous.

Jermaine Green, an accused cocaine dealer, not only was on the streets for a month without authorities knowing his whereabouts, but when finally caught early Wednesday morning he was driving without a license and had just led Schenectady police on a high-speed chase. That was the same day he was scheduled to appear in Schenectady County Court on the drug charges.

How Green came to be at large was a study in confusion. Back in December, officials at the Albany County Jail, where he was being held on unrelated charges (driving without a license and illegal possession of a billy club), misread an order from Schenectady County Court. The order was issued after Green was transported to Schenectady and arraigned on the drug charges, before being taken back to Albany.

Almost everything about that document said to keep the prisoner — from the word “Commitment” at the top; to “An order ... that the above-named defendant be held to answer to the Schenectady County Court” drug charges; to “You are commanded to receive him into your custody and retain him until he/she be legally discharged”; to, at the bottom, “Bail Was Not Fixed.”

Unfortunately, just above the “You are commanded ...” was another, somewhat confusing message: “Vacate Warrant.” Although to the judge who ordered it and the Schenectady Sheriff’s Department which delivered it, the message meant, “You’ve already arrested and are holding him, so there’s no need to execute our warrant,” that wasn’t how Albany jail officials read it. They, for some reason, focused only on the “Vacate Warrant” line, disregarded or never read the rest, concluded that Schenectady officials no longer wanted Green, and released him on bail.

The mistake could have been avoided by considering the entire document, and if there was any question, calling Schenectady officials.

Which is not to say it’s OK to have a legal commitment order that leaves any room for confusion or misinterpretation. There are things Schenectady officials can do to make sure this doesn’t happen again. One has already been done by the county court, which, since Green’s erroneous release became known, has been adding the word “remand” after “vacate warrant” to such commitment orders. The other, which the Sheriff’s Department is about to start doing, is to stamp a big “HOLD” on them (something Albany County's does).

Mistakes happen, but this is the last place you want them to. Lucky no one was hurt.

 
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