An arrest warrant is a type of legal document issued by a neutral magistrate or judge that authorizes law enforcement to arrest a specified individual who has been accused of committing a crime. It permits them to take this accused individual into custody based on the reason alleged in the warrant.
The purpose of issuing an arrest warrant is to protect U.S. citizens from being unlawfully arrested, which is a constitutional right under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The warrant is also meant to provide actual notice to the individual being arrested and to inform them of the charges being brought against them by law enforcement.
For example, an arrest warrant may be issued when a person becomes a suspect in a criminal case. If the evidence leads the police to reasonably believing that a certain individual committed a crime, then they may request a warrant to arrest them. Such crimes include suspects involved in rape cases, murder, theft, abduction, and breaking and entering matters.
In some cases, a person can also be arrested if there is a bench warrant out for their arrest. This can happen when a person neglects to show up for a court hearing, ignores a subpoena ordering them to testify, fails to pay court-ordered child support or traffic citations, and/or violates the terms of their probation. When any of these acts occur, a court may issue what is called a “bench warrant”.
A bench warrant essentially has the same consequences as an arrest warrant except that it is being issued for different reasons, namely, for being in contempt of court. Thus, some of the defenses to a bench warrant may differ than those for a standard arrest warrant. These will be discussed in further detail in a section below.
Finally, if you have any questions about an arrest warrant or are aware of an arrest warrant issued against you, you should contact a criminal defense lawyer immediately for further legal advice. Failure to cooperate with authorities during an arrest can result in serious consequences. A lawyer can advise you of the next steps you should take and can help you prepare a defense to either get your charges dropped or reduce any resulting penalties.
How Do Warrants for Arrest Work?
In order for an arrest warrant to be valid, there are a number of requirements that law enforcement must meet. First, law enforcement must have sufficient probable cause to arrest a suspect and they must provide evidence that supports their belief that the suspect is in fact the person responsible for the crime committed.
This information (e.g., the name of the individual, the crime committed, etc.) must be submitted to the court in the form of an affidavit. The affidavit must also contain the reason why an arrest warrant should be issued for this specific individual.
Once law enforcement provides this information to the court, the arrest warrant must be signed and issued by a neutral and detached magistrate. After the judge reviews and signs it, the arrest warrant will authorize law enforcement to take the person named in the warrant into custody (e.g., the suspect) at any time and in any place in which they can locate them. The only exception to this standard is if there are restrictions listed within the warrant.
If law enforcement fails to provide probable cause or sufficient evidence to support their beliefs, then it may be considered an invalid arrest warrant. An arrest warrant may also be considered invalid if the judge who signs is not neutral and detached from the request. For instance, if the judge is not an objective party and is being paid by law enforcement to issue the warrant, then this will invalidate both the warrant requirements and the document itself.
A person can determine if they have a warrant out for their arrest by conducting an arrest warrant search. An arrest warrant search can be done by checking local court records, contacting a local sheriff’s office, speaking to a bail bondsman, calling a local precinct directly (though not recommended), or by consulting a criminal defense attorney.
How Do I Find Out if There is a Warrant Out for My Arrest?
In some instances, a person may not know that there is a warrant out for their arrest until law enforcement shows up at their home or office to take them into custody. As a general rule of thumb, arrest warrants typically do not expire. Thus, an arrest warrant may be in effect for decades before the individual is apprehended.
Before alerting the police, an individual who knows, wishes to know, or suspects a warrant has been issued for their arrest, should contact a criminal defense attorney first. A criminal defense attorney has tools that can determine whether a warrant has in fact been issued for a particular individual and can potentially speak to law enforcement on that individual’s behalf.
A lawyer will also be familiar with the right law enforcement parties to get in touch with to confirm whether a warrant has actually been issued, such as a county or district clerk’s office or the federal courts. Additionally, a lawyer may be able to use a third-party investigator, a private company that conducts warrant searches, and/or can check with a county or sheriff’s office that maintains an online database for arrest warrants.
Lastly, if a warrant has been issued for an individual’s arrest, an attorney can help them take the appropriate next steps, explain any potential consequences related to the arrest warrant, and devise a strategy to defend them against the charges alleged in the arrest warrant.
What Should I Do if There is an Arrest Warrant Issued for Me?
A person who learns that there is a warrant out for their arrest should not simply ignore it. Instead, they should either surrender themselves directly to the police or choose the more prudent option of immediately contacting a criminal defense attorney.
It is important to keep in mind that when there is a warrant out for arrest on a person, law enforcement will be authorized to arrest them at any time and in any location. Thus, they can even be arrested while walking down the street or at the gym.
Again, contacting an attorney may be the best option. An attorney can advise them of their next steps and help defend them against the charges. If a person fails to consult an attorney before they get arrested, then they should calmly and willingly allow law enforcement to arrest them and take them into custody.
After being taken into custody, they should assert their rights by clearly indicating their desire to have an attorney present and wait quietly until their attorney arrives.
Do I Have any Defenses Against an Arrest Warrant?
A person who has an arrest warrant issued against them may be able to raise a number of legal defenses. One such defense an accused person may assert is that law enforcement did not provide adequate probable cause when submitting their request for a warrant.
For instance, if law enforcement lied in their affidavit or there was not enough information for a magistrate to reasonably conclude that a warrant should be issued, then this may operate as a solid defense.
Another defense to an arrest warrant is if the individual is not the particular person named within the warrant. For example, if the police arrest the wrong person (e.g., someone with the same name as the suspect like “John Smith”), then the warrant will not be valid and can thus be eliminated by asserting this as a defense.
As previously mentioned, in situations where a person is in contempt of court, the court may issue a legal document for their arrest known as a “bench warrant”. In this instance, if the individual can provide an adequate and reasonable excuse for missing their court date (e.g., a medical emergency), then they may be able to use a valid excuse as a defense.
In cases where any of the above defenses are successfully raised, the arrest warrant will be terminated and the charges may be dropped.
One final thing to note about arrest warrants is that it will be in the best interests of the individual named in the warrant to cooperate with law enforcement authorities. Aside from potentially receiving a reduction in sentencing for doing so, arrest warrants never expire.
So, while the time period in which a prosecutor must file charges against a defendant may expire, an arrest warrant will not go away until the accused is apprehended. This is because a person who has a warrant out for their arrest is considered a fugitive (i.e., on the run from the law) until they are brought into custody. Thus, it is better to surrender than to face harsher and additional legal consequences.
Should I Consult a Criminal Defense Lawyer if I Have an Arrest Warrant?
If there is a warrant out for your arrest, you should contact a local criminal defense lawyer immediately for further guidance. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can try to negotiate with law enforcement to reach a reasonable solution for the charges alleged in the arrest warrant, can check to confirm that there are no other warrants or outstanding warrants issued against you, and can determine if there are any defenses you can raise against the charges.
Additionally, your lawyer can clear up any misunderstandings if you are not the correct person for whom the warrant was issued and can ensure that your rights are protected in accordance with the law. Lastly, if you are charged with a crime, your lawyer can also assist you in preparing a solid defense and can provide representation in court.