Missed connections

Minnesota’s criminal justice system is unable or unwilling to connect the dots.

Daquan Stephen Rogers, 29, is under investigation for an assault on a light rail platform in downtown Minneapolis on May 20 that resulted in a 41-year-old falling under a passing train and being crushed to death. The video of the incident is troubling to watch but underscores Rogers’ disregard for the safety of others.

Rogers was arrested for probable cause murder later in the day, but the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office deferred charging Rogers pending further investigation. He was released on May 24 with no conditions and no charges.

If this was the only incident Rogers had ever been involved in, we might all accept the need for patience while investigators gathered all the information needed for the County Attorney to make a charging decision. But this is far from Rogers’ first brush with the law, and many of them have involved violence in and around our transit system.

The failure of our court system to connect the dots and incapacitate Rogers, and so many others just like him, is making us all less safe. It leaves a multi-billion-dollar light rail and public transit system struggling, and on a broader scale, the “livability” of our urban areas has been severely impacted.

Rogers has had at least 13 criminal court cases in the metro area over the past 10 years, many involving assaults, disorderly conduct, or weapons violations — many involving the transit system. In nearly every case in which Rogers was ordered to appear in court, he failed to appear as ordered, and arrest warrants were required to compel his appearance. There are well over 20 instances of failure to appear and nearly as many arrest warrants. Yet court after court continues to release Rogers when he comes before them.

The latest failure to appear occurred June 1 in Hennepin County District Court. I was there to see if Rogers would appear on a case from April, in which he was arrested by transit police for disorderly conduct, fleeing police on foot, and possession of drug paraphernalia. Rogers had been booked, charged, and released with no bail and no conditions other than to appear back in court June 1. Instead, Rogers continued to remain lawless, and on May 20 his violent nature cost a man his life.

What I was hoping to see, given Rogers’ prolific history of failing to appear and the rather high-profile arrest for murder at the light rail station, was a court system fully aware of this information and a court system willing and able to connect the dots and take action to incapacitate Rogers in the name of public safety. My hopes were dashed.

What I witnessed was two prosecutors and a judge processing or disposing of some 30 cases in approximately two hours. At the end of that time, the court asked the clerk which defendants had failed to show. There were several, including Rogers. They then quickly addressed those failures to appear. When Rogers’ case came up, there was no recognition of his history of failing to appear and no recognition of his involvement in the homicide just 10 days earlier. Instead, the prosecutor noted that Rogers’ failure to appear was the first in the case from April, and therefore recommended a “sign and release” warrant, which is Minneapolis City Attorney policy. The result of a sign and release warrant is that when the police come in contact with Rogers, they cannot arrest him but rather must inform him that he missed court and issue him a new date. (Sign and Release warrants were created in the late 2010s as a way to reduce jail bookings — specifically targeting the reduction of arrests of people of color who were determined to be disproportionately affected by “failure to appear” warrants).

I spoke with the prosecutor after court. He acknowledged having no information about Rogers’ history of failure to appear, or his involvement in the recent homicide. I also spoke with the court’s clerk. It was clear that no information about Rogers’ history was known to the court when the decision to issue a sign and release warrant was made.

I’ve also reviewed the online court records for Rogers’ 13 previous cases. They include assaulting police officers, assault of a transit bus driver while armed with a realist-looking pellet gun, disorderly conduct, fleeing police, and drug possession. Each of Rogers’ convictions has resulted in a “stayed” sentence and a credit for any jail time. Not one of the courts that have previously “stayed” a sentence on Rogers has taken any action against him for his ongoing criminal activity. In fact, when Rogers was last in custody for the May homicide, he had failed to pay hundreds of dollars in fines or make any effort to pay $1,100 in restitution to victims in his previous cases. Yet no alert appears to have been made to any of the previous courts that continue to have jurisdiction over Rogers.

As of this writing, there is a toothless “sign and release” warrant for Rogers, though his whereabouts are unknown. The Minneapolis police continue their follow-up investigation in hopes the Hennepin County Attorney will eventually charge Rogers for his involvement in the light rail train death. Several other courts that continue to have jurisdiction over Rogers for previous convictions are apparently oblivious to his continued criminal activity and are taking no action against him.

In a truly head-shaking turn of events, the recent marijuana legalization law will result in the automatic expungement of one of Rogers’ earlier convictions — the same system that will keep failing to connect the dots between Rogers’ other criminal activity and that of thousands of others like him.

Over the next several years, we will pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the legalization of marijuana and the expungement of previous convictions while continuing to underfund an overburdened system of judges, prosecutors, and associated technology that could help them connect dots in cases like Rogers’. As a result, our criminal justice system will continue to fail to keep us safe. The public rightfully expects more, and the criminal justice system must find ways to do better.