(WASHINGTON) — A new review of the U.S. Marshal Service said that the cost of bringing international fugitives to justice in the U.S. is getting out of control, partly because the service is spending millions of taxpayer dollars on charter flights for criminal transport. But what is normally thought to be a luxury, the service says, is actually a necessity due to some obscure lines in U.S. legal code.
Last year alone the service spent some $5.3 million to remove 875 international fugitives from a third country and bring them to the U.S., according to a Department of Justice Inspector General report released on Thursday. The Marshals had requested the review, hoping to curb the “spiraling cost” of the removals.
Many trips cost next to nothing as “some removal events from Mexico may involve simply walking or driving the fugitive across the U.S. border.” Others, however, can run up a tab north of $200,000 each — usually on the relatively rare occasion when the USMS springs for taking their quarry home on chartered flights.
In fiscal year 2013, the service took 29 chartered flights, costing approximately $2.3 million, the IG report says. The difference in cost from chartered to commercial can be striking, as noted in a section of the IG report that said a 2012 chartered transport for a fugitive from Scotland to Arizona was approximately $130,000, compared to a similar removal the next year done commercially for just under $6,000.
But while the IG criticized the Marshals for sometimes not explaining why some chartered fights were necessary, in the report the Marshals do explain one curious problem with what’s known as “959” cases.
The “959” refers to a section in the U.S. legal code that says when a person is apprehended on certain drug charges outside the U.S., they “shall be tried in the United States district court at the point of entry where such person enters the United States…” By the USMS’s interpretation, this means “where the aircraft first touches down” — no connecting domestic flights allowed, even just for refueling.
“As a result, the USMS must ensure that a ‘959’ fugitive is taken directly to the federal judicial district where the original charge was brought so that prosecutors responsible for the case can handle the prosecution,” the IG report says. “This can be problematic when commercial airlines do not offer direct flights to a particular federal district.”
For example, the IG report says that the Southern District of New York doesn’t have a major international airport, “yet many narcotics and high-profile cases are charged in this district.” So, the USMS has to charter a plane that can fly into a smaller airport in Westchester County, which is in the right judicial district, even though major hubs like JFK, LaGuardia and Newark International Airport are just miles away.
The IG conceded that there was little to be done about the “959” cases, short of telling the Marshals to “seek legislative change” to the U.S. code to remedy the problem.
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