The year was 2009 and, like many of his neighbors, Benji Rusthoven was broke. And hungry.
So the Minneapolis man went to Cub Foods in Oakdale and bought a Monster energy drink — but also slid $36 worth of steak, potatoes and other groceries into a bag and tried walking out the door.
A security guard quickly caught him and Rusthoven was assigned a court date several months out. One he never made it to.
Since then, an arrest warrant stemming from the petty theft has been hanging over his head.
“I always equate legal issues and warrants with going to jail, so I was really scared,” said Rusthoven, now 43, and up for a comfortable information technology job. “It’s a really good opportunity and I didn’t want to blow it [over $36].”
Rusthoven was among about 50 people who chose to resolve outstanding non-violent misdemeanor warrants — and avoid jail time — by attending Ramsey County’s first Warrant Resolution Event on Saturday. Judges, lawyers and sheriff’s officials were on hand at Aldrich Arena in Maplewood from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. for citizens to clear up mistakes from their past.
In most cases, those minor warrants were wiped off the law breaker’s records with a scheduled court date, a fine or even forgiveness.
More than a dozen people lined up outside the arena Saturday morning before the event opened for a chance at redemption. The arena floor, set up like a career fair, had designated tables for each segment of the justice system: court administration, probation, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges, even a court reporter.
A steady stream of citizens trickled in throughout the day. One 25-year-old woman spent more than eight hours on a bus from Chicago to clear up her outstanding warrant for a 2009 petty theft.
In all, there are about 8,500 to 9,000 active warrants out in Ramsey County, Sheriff Matt Bostrom said last week. About half of those are for non-violent misdemeanors — unpaid parking tickets, disorderly conduct, petty theft. And half of those are more than four years old.
These unresolved minor warrants often clog up the criminal justice system, leading to an unnecessarily costly and embarrassing trip to jail for someone who did something fairly petty. Saturday’s event acted as a dry run for Ramsey County, following in Hennepin County’s successful footsteps, of easing that burden for both defendants and justice workers.
Consider: “You get stopped for a traffic violation with your kids in the car and all of a sudden you’re in jail because of this [open] warrant,” said Connie Iversen, managing attorney at the Ramsey Public Defender’s Office. “Here they can do it on their own time,”
Usually a defendant’s only other option is to turn themselves into custody and wait to get on a calendar and appear before a judge — which can take up to a week. “In the meantime, they lose their jobs, worry about their kids and their houses,” she said.
The vast majority of citizens who cooperated on Saturday were free of haunting warrants within an hour. And no one was arrested, said Kyle Mestad, director of planning and policy analysis at the sheriff’s office.
Rusthoven’s case was dismissed and the resolution took only 20 minutes. “It was very painless,” he said, sighing with relief.
“It’s amazing the number of folks who have walked out smiling,” Mestad said. “It’s a burden that’s been lifted.”