One of the most effective ways to measure a law-enforcement agency’s performance is by the percentage of crimes it solves, known in legal circles as its “clearance rate.” Criminal investigations can be cleared in one of two ways: by arrest or by “exception.” Clearances by exception must meet rigid criteria that the FBI has used for 80 years. Essentially, the perpetrator must be known to the police but cannot be apprehended due to special circumstances such as the suspect’s death. Although the criteria governing exceptional clearance are clear and objective, some law-enforcement agencies skirt the rules of exception to clear cases that do not meet the criteria, essentially declaring unsolved crimes solved to inflate the agency’s clearance rate. Clearing cases that have not been solved deprives crime victims of justice and may compromise public safety.
The recent Goldwater Institute report "Mission Unaccomplished: The Misplaced Priorities of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office" presented substantial evidence that the Maricopa County Sherriff’s Office (MCSO) is improperly clearing cases by exception, possibly on a very large scale. The East Valley Tribune, in its Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative series, reported that in 2006 MCSO closed three times as many cases by exception as by arrest. The Tribune investigated MCSO case files and found that many were cleared without investigation. MCSO officials told the Tribune that an internal investigation was ongoing. But two years later the Arizona Republic reported that MCSO only cleared 18 percent of its 7,200 cleared cases by arrest, suggesting that the misuse of exceptional clearance may be unabated. The Goldwater Institute has urged the legislature to require local law-enforcement agencies to report and post current and accurate crime statistics, including clearance rates broken down by arrests and exceptional clearances.
This supplemental brief was precipitated by the emergence of a real-life victim of MCSO’s improper clearance of a serious crime.
Read Clint Bolick's letter to Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard and Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas asking for an investigation into MCSO's use of clearance by exception.