Courts issue arrest warrants for many different reasons. Some are issued at the request of the police and prosecutors after a criminal investigation develops probable cause to believe that the person named in the warrant committed a crime. Others are issued because the person named in the warrant failed to appear for a court proceeding as required by a summons or bail condition. Sometimes, warrants are issued because a driver has failed to pay or contest a traffic ticket. Occasionally, a warrant is issued authorizing the arrest of a witness who disobeyed (or who is expected to disobey) a subpoena.
If a warrant has been issued for your arrest, but you have not yet been arrested, how you respond depends on the nature of the warrant. You might be able to avoid being taken into custody. You might even be able to get the warrant withdrawn. Your best chance of avoiding arrest is to consult with a lawyer at your earliest opportunity.
Arrest Warrants Issued After Criminal Investigations
If the police see a crime being committed, they normally intervene and make an arrest. They do not need a warrant to do that. When the police investigate more complex crimes over a long period of time, such as conspiracies to deal drugs or steal identities, they are more likely to seek an arrest warrant. Once the police decide that they have gathered enough evidence, they can ask for a warrant authorizing the arrest of the individuals that they have been investigating.
An arrest warrant is issued by a judge or magistrate. The warrant can only be issued if there is probable cause to believe that the person named in the warrant committed a crime. Probable cause means that given all the relevant facts and circumstances, it is likely that a crime was committed.
Warrants after Indictment
In federal criminal prosecutions and in some states, felonies are charged in an indictment returned by a grand jury that considers evidence presented by a prosecutor. A judge or magistrate then signs an arrest warrant for the person named in the indictment. The magistrate does not need to decide whether probable cause exists to support the warrant, because the grand jury has already made that determination.
Warrants Based on a Criminal Complaint
In states that do not use a grand jury to charge felonies, or when the criminal charge involves a misdemeanor, a prosecutor files a criminal complaint with the court. The complaint states facts explaining why the defendant is charged with a crime. If those facts create probable cause to believe that a crime was committed, a judge (or another authorized court official) can sign an arrest warrant for the person named in the complaint.
Alternatives to Arrest Warrants
Arrest warrants are not issued in every case when an indictment or complaint is filed with the court. The police and prosecutors will most often seek an arrest warrant if there is reason to believe that the defendant will flee if he or she learns of the criminal charge. Particularly when misdemeanors or less serious felonies are charged, prosecutors might issue a summons that will be served upon the defendant. A summons allows the defendant to appear in court voluntarily on a designated date. In addition, if the defendant is already in custody on a different charge, there is no need to issue an arrest warrant.
Authority Granted by Arrest Warrants
An arrest warrant authorizes the police to arrest the named person wherever they find him/her. The police can enter the defendant’s home without the defendant’s consent if they have a reasonable belief that the defendant is in the home. Unless it would be unsafe to do so, they must knock and announce their presence before entering. If they receive no response after waiting for a reasonable amount of time, which might only be a few seconds, they can force an entry into the home. The warrant authorizes the police to search the home for the defendant but not to search the home for evidence of a crime. They must obtain a search warrant if they want to search for evidence.
The warrant must identify the defendant by name. If the defendant’s true name is unknown, the warrant must include enough particular identifying information to allow the police to arrest the right person. A general description is not sufficient. The warrant must also identify the crime for which the person named in the warrant is being arrested.
What to do if Arrested on a Warrant
When you are arrested pursuant to a warrant, the police must show you the warrant. The warrant will specify the crime for which you are being arrested. Even if you disagree that you committed that crime, you should not resist arrest. That will only result in another criminal charge and it might make the police behave aggressively.
Unless you know for a fact that you are not the person named in the warrant, protests will get you nowhere. If the police have mistaken you for the person named in the warrant, you can politely call their attention to the error, but if they arrest you anyway, accompany them peacefully and explain your problem to a lawyer at your earliest opportunity.
The police must bring you before the court that issued the warrant promptly so that the court can consider bail. "Promptly" does not mean immediately; you might need to wait a day or two. In the meantime, the police might try to question you. Before they do so, they will tell you that you have the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. You should always exercise those rights. Talk to a lawyer before you talk to the police. Whether you are innocent or guilty, remaining silent and insisting on the presence of a lawyer may save you from being convicted.
A bench warrant is an arrest warrant issued by a judge when the judge has personal knowledge of the need to issue the warrant. No indictment or criminal complaint is required for the issuance of a bench warrant. Most bench warrants are issued because a defendant who received a summons failed to appear in court on the specified date. A bench warrant can also be issued when a witness fails to appear in court as required by a subpoena or other court order.
In some states, the failure to respond to a traffic ticket will result in the issuance of a bench warrant. In other states, a judgment will be entered requiring payment of the ticket, but no warrant will be issued. In some other states, a judgment will be entered if you default on a minor traffic ticket but a warrant will be issued if the ticket was for a more serious violation that requires a court appearance, such as drunk driving.
Material Witness Warrants
Prosecutors can ask a judge to issue a material witness warrant if they want a witness to testify in a criminal prosecution but fear that the witness will not honor a subpoena. They are most often issued when an important witness has told the police that he or she will not cooperate with the prosecution. When a material witness is brought before the judge after arrest, the judge can set bail or can hold the witness in jail pending the trial. Only in extreme cases will a judge deprive a witness of his or her liberty if the trial is not already underway.
How Do You Know if You Have a Warrant?
Sometimes an indictment and resulting warrant are "sealed," meaning that they are not made part of the public record until after arrests are made. That often happens in federal cases when the charges are serious. Sealing the indictment is meant to prevent defendants from fleeing after they learn that they have been charged with a crime. If a sealed warrant has been issued for you, there is no way for you to learn about it unless a co-defendant is able to contact you after that person has been arrested.
In most other cases, warrants are a matter of public record. Usually the county sheriff or other law enforcement official has a telephone number that you can call to check on the existence of warrants in that county. In states that place court records on the Internet, you may be able to find that a warrant has been issued by searching for your name and examining any criminal case listing that appears online.
What Should You do if a Warrant Has Been Issued for Your Arrest?
If a warrant has been issued for your arrest, contact a lawyer immediately. It is always better to deal with a warrant proactively than to wait to be arrested. If you have been charged with a crime, the police are probably looking for you. The more serious the crime, the more active their attempt to find you will be. Arranging to turn yourself in with the help of a lawyer will make it more likely that a judge will set reasonable bail in your case. Ducking the warrant might make a judge set high bail for fear that you will also duck court appearances if you are released.
If a bench warrant has been issued for you, the police might not be actively searching for you, but your name will be entered into a computer and you will be arrested on the warrant if you are pulled over for a traffic violation or otherwise come into contact with the police. You can usually resolve a bench warrant easily by contacting a lawyer. You might need to turn yourself in, but the lawyer can probably arrange a prompt court appearance so that you will not be held in custody for long. In many cases, the lawyer can simply reschedule your court appearance after assuring the court that you will appear on your new court date. If you appear as promised, the bench warrant is withdrawn.