Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey is launching an effort to clean out the justice system’s attic, a move he says is needed to help people move past the “stupid thing they did at a stupid time in their lives.”
Morrissey’s office has been reviewing warrants at Quincy District Court, the busiest district court in Norfolk County. The warrants date back to the early 1990s and even the 1980s — but they remain on the books and could lead to a person being arrested because the warrants are still considered legally active.
“It’s like a field with land mines — you just don’t know when you are going to step on them,’’ he said. “We are trying to clear the field.”
In the first review of the records, Morrissey said, his office has identified more than 200 active warrants for minor crimes — or crimes that no longer exist — that should be eliminated so that the people named in them do not suddenly find themselves spending a weekend in jail.
Morrissey said his office Monday will file nolle prosequi, or nonprosecution, statements formally dismissing 50 cases. He expects those will be the first of a wave of cases in which he invokes his authority as a chief law enforcement officer for Norfolk County to bring an end to cases in the interest of justice.
“I do send a lot of people to the House of Correction and state prison, [but] I am a big fan of not getting people court-involved,” he said. “We are not talking about crazy stuff liked armed robbery or crimes of violence. We are talking about nonviolent cases.”
Morrissey said his office often gets calls from people and defense attorneys after people have suddenly found themselves in custody for an act they may have committed 20 years ago, something they haven’t done since. Oftentimes, he said, the people have not been arrested for anything else in subsequent years. Some people who are out of state find they cannot get benefits or housing because a background check contains the outdated information.
He said his office has identified the following categories of cases it will decline to prosecute:
■ Cases that involve a corporate entity that no longer exists. Morrissey said his office has found outstanding check fraud warrants that had been obtained by chain stores such as Zayres that no longer exist and thus cannot push ahead with the cases now.
■ Cases where the laws have changed so the crime no longer exists. In drug possession warrants, the case will be examined individually to see whether dismissal is in the interest of justice.
■ Cases where the sanction upon conviction is only a fine.
Morrissey said his review is consistent with the prosecutorial philosophy he has used during his nine years in the office — work first to help people and limit incarceration to those who truly deserve imprisonment — and do not punish those who “did a stupid thing at a stupid time in their lives.”
He also said his review is needed because the warrant management system where the information is stored — and is accessed by police during encounters with the public — does not have a built-in mechanism for pruning out old files.
“A warrant could actually deny people access to housing, to education, to financial benefits,’’ he said. “Everybody makes small mistakes. We are trying to deal with the small mistakes without causing them a lot of pain.”
The warrant review will next move to the district court in Brookline followed by the district courts in Dedham, Stoughton, and Wrentham.