'Frequent Fliers': Experts speculate some get re-arrested on purpose

Staff Writer

For those who grew up in the 1960s or are fans of reruns of old comedy shows, the name Otis Campbell might ring a bell.

From 1960 to 1967, he was known to drink a bit much and let himself in the Mayberry jail on the Andy Griffith Show.

The character was phased out in the late 1960s because sponsors of the popular show were concerned about the portrayal of excessive drinking.

In modern lexicon, Otis would be known as a “frequent flyer,” someone who is so well-known to law enforcement for committing small crimes he or she can almost let themselves into jail. But in this day and time of addictions, mental health issues and strained government budgets, those jail regulars also increasingly are becoming a problem.

And law enforcement, the courts and even medical and mental health professionals say there is no clear or easy answer.

“We have them, several of them. On the one hand you feel sorry for them, on the other you know they are a nuisance and a potential danger to themselves and other people. You try everything you can,” Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott said.

As an example, 42-year-old Dennis Wayne Burns was arrested Monday night for shoplifting at a business on Highway 50 West.

As he is prone to do, Burns ran and had to be chased down. That prompted a resisting arrest charge.

According to Clay County Jail records obtained by the Daily Times Leader, in the last 18 months alone, Burns has been arrested 13 times by either Clay County Sheriff’s deputies or West Point Police officers. He’s spent a total of 130 days in jail.

Since 2000, his arrest sheets take up nine pages. While most of the charges are misdemeanors, aggravated assaults also are sprinkled in.

Those arrests and days in jail don’t include additional cases in Chickasaw and Calhoun counties where he also is well-known.

“We all know him. You just hope he doesn’t end up hurting someone or causing someone to get hurt,” said West Point Police Chief Avery Cook, who has had to run Burns down before.

The issues are numerous. For businesses, it gets to be a nuisance and unproductive having to watch out for petty criminals who steal for a variety of reasons.

For officers, it also is time-consuming, between arrests, paperwork and court time.

But it has to be done.

And chasing a fleeing suspect has its risks, from injury to the officer to possible harm to a bystander.

“We think some of the people we see often get arrested on purpose. They need a place to stay and eat. It’s sad, but it probably is true for a lot of them. There are only so many things we can do,” Scott said. “They come in, get rested and get healthy and they get out and it starts again.”

Many of the regular offenders are caught for shoplifting. They often are taking food, clothing items and toiletries. It’s things they need as they bounce from place to place.

“If they aren’t homeless, they are as close to homeless as you can be,” Scott said.

“It’s just a cycle. And changes in the law make it more difficult for everyone,” Cook noted.

“For many of them, it becomes a way of life. Families won’t have them, they don’t want or can’t get help so petty theft is a means to an end, they get the things they need or they get caught and spend a little time in jail,” noted Columbus lawyer Donna Smith, who is the senior public defender in Lowndes County and frequently sees the petty offenders when handling cases in city or justice courts.
Changes in the law have forced changes.

The state Supreme Court two years ago required city and justice courts to have arraignments for offenders within a matter of days. Bonds also had to be reasonable. And people were given credit for $100 toward their fine for each day in jail rather than $25.

That means repeat offenders are in jail less time, but often they end up repeating more often.

And until this year, three shoplifting convictions made the third one a felony, punishable by prison time. The Legislature, as part criminal justice reform, changed that.

Beginning July 1, to be a felony, the third offense has to be more than $500 in goods. Petty criminals don’t usually take that much.

“It makes the cycle worse in some cases,” Cook observed. 

While officers are caught in a difficult position, it can be even tougher for judges who must decide how to handle cases when they've seen the person repeatedly.

"You can't just let people abuse the system and keep getting arrested for misdemeanors knowing our hands are tied to a degree. You want to have compassion and follow the law and exact punishment.

That's not always easy to do," said one Golden Triangle Justice Court judge who didn't want to be named so as to not appear to be discussing a specific case.

"And city courts and justice courts aren't equipped to handle the kinds of issues many of these people have, health issues, addictions, mental health problems, and jail isn't the answer. The costs and the risks just add up," the judge continued.

Families get frustrated, too.

Like many “regulars,” Burns has an addiction problem. His family tried to help for years and still does what it can, Scott surmised. Burns’ mother called the department during the weekend warning them Burns was on the streets after having been released from jail in Calhoun County.

Sure enough, he was picked up Monday night.

“The families try, we know they do,” Scott stated. “But they can only do so much until it becomes a threat to the family or a financial burden or all of the above.”

Arrests among “frequent flyers” also often include family disturbance or disturbing the peace as family tensions mount when they show up. The same for businesses that try to keep them out.

Burns was committed for treatment through the courts several months ago, but it didn’t take.

“If people don’t want help, it’s not going to work,” Smith said. “For some people, I don’t know that it ever does until something really bad happens.

“On the one hand, jail is a safety net against harm coming to them. And it’s a sanctuary for them. It’s a touch problem to solve. But jails everywhere have the problem,” she continued.

In the old Andy Griffith Show, the reprisal of the show in the early 1990s showed Otis recovered and became the driver of an ice cream truck. When reminded of that Smith had a quick response.

“You hope every one of them ends up with a good ending like that. But many of these will just go on and on and on,” she observed.