Not the kind of surprise you want!
Not all surprises are good, especially when connected to arrest warrants against you.
Imagine seeing blue lights behind you. You pull over for a routine traffic violation and find yourself in the back seat of a squad car. Wait! What? Why am I being arrested? Or, imagine sitting on your porch and seeing a police car drive up and then watching an officer come up to you, ask your name, and say, “We have a arrest warrants on you.”
Arrest warrants are no laughing matter. These are serious legal issues with long-lasting ramifications, and these issues need to be resolved immediately.
What are arrest warrants?
An arrest warrant is an official document that gives police officers authority to arrest the person named on the warrant. This legal document contains the individual’s name and detail of the crime committed. Arrest warrants specify the facts of the case, and shows that the person whose name is on the warrant is the one who committed the crime.
Arrest warrants also contain the date and time they were issued, the city and county where the crime occurred, and the name of the court. In some cases, the warrant will even detail the manner in which the arrest is to take place and the time or hours within which the defendant may be arrested, unless it is a felony offense, as well as the bail that the defendant will have to post.
A police officer obtains a warrant by submitting a written affidavit – a statement given under oath that the information is true and correct – to the magistrate. There are legal penalties for officers who obtain arrest warrants using false assertions. The judge, who is neutral and detached from the investigation, will consider the officer’s experience and training and whether the facts outlined establish just cause for action. Once the facts have been reviewed to the judge’s satisfaction, an arrest warrant will be issued.
It is important to understand that warrants are specific to a person believed to be suspected of a particular crime. If a witness identifies a person who committed a crime as a tall and broad-shouldered male with long hair, and John Doe meets that general description, those officers do not have the authority to arrest John Doe. Only if the arrest warrant contains the name of John Doe, his known aliases, or a specific – not generalized – physical description will officers have the authority to arrest him.
Judges are under no obligation to issue arrest warrants. Just because an officer prepares and submits an affidavit for a warrant does not mean the judge has to sign it. A judge can refuse to sign a warrant if the affidavit does not have enough information to establish probable cause or if there are no witnesses to the case. Once a judge signs it, the arrest warrant orders the police to arrest the individual named on the warrant promptly and to bring that individual to that court. An officer is not required to display the warrant to the defendant at the time of the arrest.
When the defendant appears before a judge, bail is set, or conditions are established for the defendant’s pretrial release. In some cases, bail may not be allowed or may not be posted; in those situations, the defendant is held until a first court appearance.
How did I get arrest warrants?
There are any number of reasons that arrest warrants are issued. An investigation into a crime may show that you are a suspect, or witnesses to a crime may identify you as the suspect. Perhaps you were involved in a domestic dispute, and you were gone by the time the police arrived. In a case like this, officers may have spoken with other witnesses to the event and now believe they have probable cause to obtain an arrest warrant. Traffic citations can also lead to arrest warrants if they are left unattended.
If you have violated parole or probation, a warrant may be issued for your arrest. If you failed to appear, failed to pay a fine, or committed some other act of non-compliance to court orders, you may have had a bench warrant issued. Regardless of what leads to having a warrant issued for your arrest, the officer must first establish probable cause in order to have the warrant signed by a judge.
A judge can issue an arrest warrant through a police officer’s written affidavit or following an indictment by a grand jury. A grand jury can indict a defendant after hearing evidence presented by the prosecutor and finding that probable cause exists. Once they indict an individual, the judge will issue a warrant for that person’s arrest.
Establishing probable cause for your arrest warrants
Probable cause is defined as “reasonable grounds.” The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution requires that probable cause must exist before an arrest is made, a search is conducted, or a warrant is issued. Probable cause for the issuance of arrest warrants is a reasonable basis for believing that a crime has been committed and that the person being arrested or named in the warrant is the one who committed that crime. Probable cause can be established based directly on a police officer’s own observations or by credible information provided by someone else.
I know I'm innocent, so I don't have to worry.
Arrest warrants should never be taken lightly. Even if you know that you are innocent and are confident that you can be proven not guilty, when you learn there is or may be a warrant out for your arrest, you need to go into action immediately.
The first thing you should do is contact your lawyer. Contacting an attorney early in your case gives them more time to investigate the charges against you and prepare a criminal defense strategy.
What if there are outstanding arrest warrants against me?
If you have been named in an arrest warrant and have not yet been arrested, that means you have an outstanding arrest warrant. This can happen deliberately by evading law enforcement or unintentionally if you are not aware that a warrant has been issued for your arrest. Occasionally, a backlog of warrants waiting to be served by a particular agency can lead to a warrant being outstanding.
If you have an outstanding warrant, you need to see about it immediately. Outstanding warrants can have far-reaching implications. For instance, some jurisdictions have restrictions on renewing a person’s driver’s license, or the individual cannot obtain a passport if there is an outstanding arrest warrant.
Executing arrest warrants
When a police officer has an arrest warrant in hand, that officer can arrest a criminal suspect as soon as that individual is found. In many cases, police officers are unaware of an arrest warrant until a traffic stop is made or there is some other situation in which a person’s identification reveals that a warrant is outstanding, and then the officer will put that person under arrest.
For a misdemeanor arrest warrant, the arrest can only be made in a person’s home between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., unless a judge authorizes the extension of those hours. This time restriction does not apply if the arrest is made in a public place or if the suspect is already in custody for some other crime. Unlike misdemeanor offenses, arrest warrants for felonies do not have time restrictions, although they are supposed to be executed within reasonable hours.
If a warrant is not executed and an extended period of time has expired, a case may be dismissed because this is a violation of a person’s right to a speedy trial. In this case, your attorney can make a motion to have your arrest warrant dismissed for untimely prosecution. There are exceptions, however, including homicide or other serious violent crimes or crimes of a sexual nature in which no statute of limitations exists.
What if arrest warrants are executed at my house?
With the exception of special circumstances, officers cannot force their way into your home or some other private place with unjustified force. The arresting officers must first announce their presence to notify the suspect that they are there. Whenever a suspect refuses to cooperate, officers may use reasonable force to enter the home or other private property to make the arrest. This process is outlined under the Fourth Amendment, which sets requirements for issuing warrants.
There are exceptions to this “knock and announce” requirement. When an officer or others could be placed in danger if they announce their presence (if the suspect may be armed and dangerous, for instance), if they believe that knocking would give the suspect time to destroy evidence, or if they believe the suspect would attempt to flee, then there is sound reason for an officer to enter without “knocking and announcing” first.
If officers are at your house to arrest someone who is there but who is not a resident, the police must have a search warrant as well as the arrest warrant.
What if I am arrested in a different county or state?
It is not uncommon for a suspect to be arrested in a different county or state than the one in which the warrant was issued. These arrests can be triggered by a traffic stop or when a suspect commits another crime and is arrested in that jurisdiction on those charges. In those cases, the suspect will have to be transported back to the county where the original arrest warrant was issued.
What if arrest warrants have incorrect information?
Occasionally an arrest warrant may have incorrect information. The spelling of the suspect’s name or the date of birth could be incorrect, or details about the crime may be incorrectly specified. If an officer shows the warrant to the suspect, and there is incorrect information, it is possible for the situation to be cleared up immediately. For instance, the suspect may be able to prove to the officer that he has arrested the wrong person and may avoid arrest altogether.
If the warrant is not shown at the time of the arrest, however, and it is determined that the warrant contains incorrect information, all of those details have to be sorted out at a later time. Remember, clerical errors are not enough to automatically invalidate a warrant. Just because your name is misspelled or the date of birth is wrong, do not automatically assume that you are off the hook.
There is an arrest warrant against me. What do I do?
There are several important steps to take if you find that a warrant has been taken for your arrest, but the single most important step is to contact a lawyer. You should not talk to the police without having your lawyer present.
Even if you only “think” a warrant has been issued for your arrest, but you are not sure, it is best to go ahead and bring an attorney into the situation. An attorney will immediately begin investigating the case on your behalf and ensuring that your civil rights are not violated in the process.
While remembering what you should do, also keep in mind that there is one thing you should NOT do: You should not run. This is never a good option for many reasons. First, who wants to live life looking over their shoulder? And, second, this automatically gives the prosecution reason to believe you are indeed guilty of the crime for which you have been accused.
What if I have become a fugitive from justice?
If you do have an outstanding warrant against you and you are on the run, you’ve created a new set of problems for yourself. If you are arrested out of state and the prosecution can prove you knew an arrest warrant was issued and that you intentionally left the state to avoid arrest, you could face additional penalties in addition to the ones you already faced for the crime itself.
You will have to appear before a judge if you are arrested outside of the state in which the arrest warrant was issued for an extradition hearing.
What’s the best way to turn myself in for an arrest warrant?
Just the thought of arrest warrants can trigger a “run and hide instinct,” especially if you are a first-time offender, even if you know you are innocent of the crime for which you have been accused. But running, hiding, avoiding the issue, and waiting for the police to come and arrest you are all the wrong ways to handle this very serious legal situation. It is more traumatic for you and your loved ones to be arrested at work, during a traffic stop, or while at home with your family.
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are considered the best days to turn yourself in. Mondays are not good days because officers are dealing with processing two days’ worth of arrests over the weekend. Fridays are not good because rarely will a judge be available at the end of the day. That means your bond may not be processed until the next week, and you will have to spend a few days in jail.
If you choose to turn yourself in, be sure to dress properly and do not bring items that you do not need. While you do not have to wear a dress or a suit and tie, it is good to dress neatly. Jeans, a clean shirt, and sandals are fine; just make sure that you are not dressed in a sloppy, careless manner. Certain articles of clothing will be taken from you if they pose a safety risk in jail. These items can include belts and shoelaces. Be sure to bring glasses and medication, but you may need to discuss medical policies with your county jail before you turn yourself in.
Bring cash or cards for bail, if it is necessary, and bring official photo identification and other necessary documents. Be careful not to bring any prohibited items or anything that will arouse suspicion. Contraband – including small knives or cigarettes – will be confiscated. Cell phones are not allowed, so be sure to write important numbers onto a piece of paper instead.
While it is often better to turn yourself in before officers come and arrest you, be aware that there are consequences of this action. Before you do this, you should speak with your attorney. A criminal defense attorney can help you evaluate the options and advise you on how to proceed.
How can an attorney help me?
When you talk to police on your own, there is a chance you are actually helping them to prove their case against you. A police officer cannot question you if you have a legal representative involved. Additionally, by having a lawyer with you when you turn yourself in, you have a better chance to get a reasonable bond.
What about my rights?
Remember, when you are arrested, that you have certain rights. Before you are interrogated by a police officer, you will be read your “Miranda Rights.” This gives you the right to remain silent. If you choose to continue with the interrogation and answer the officer’s questions, you have waived your right, and anything you say can be used against you in court.
Again, having your lawyer with you during this process will help ensure that you do not in any way harm your case.
How are bench warrants different from arrest warrants?
A bench warrant, issued from “the bench” (by a judge or court), directs police to arrest an individual who must be brought before a specific judge. A bench warrant does not initiate criminal action. It is usually a result of failure to comply with court orders. It is not unusual for a bench warrant to be outstanding for an extended period of time, sometimes even months or years. An arrest warrant, however, is the first step of a criminal process and is effective immediately upon signature by a judge.
When a bench warrant is issued for a previous failure of the suspect to appear in court, the warrant may specify that the arrested person is not to be released on bail. This is sometimes referred to as a “no-bail warrant.”
How do I find out if there are arrest warrants against me?
The easiest way to find out if there is an arrest warrant against you is to call your attorney. Law offices have the resources and experience to find this information in a timely manner.
You can also check with the courts yourself. Remember, warrants are county-specific, so you must check in the county in which the crime occurred. Warrants are registered and filed with the county clerk’s office. The sheriff’s office of the county or the police station in the municipality where the crime occurred is also another good source of information.
There are websites that offer free searches as well, including Governmentregistry.org and searchquarry.com. Under the Freedom of Information Act, any citizen has the right to search police records or warrant information. Court records are public records, which means you can check for warrants on your own, with a few exceptions, and usually for free. All you need to search for an arrest warrant or bench warrant, whether against yourself or someone else, is the full name of the person in question, their state of residence and their age or date of birth. Warrants can be looked up anonymously on online public record websites.
If you suspect that a warrant has been issued for your arrest, it is also a good idea to be mindful of postal mail. Although getting a letter from an attorney is not proof of an outstanding arrest warrant, if you notice that you are suddenly getting quite a few advertisements in the mail from law firms, this could be a sign that there is a warrant out for your arrest. After all, there are law offices that check warrant databases and send letters to attract new clients.
Note: Sometimes, you are not looking to see if there is a warrant for your arrest, but, rather, checking into the background of someone else. For instance, if you are hiring a babysitter or a personal caregiver for an elderly parent, you may want the peace of mind to know that there are not active arrest warrants against the individual you are looking to hire. Or, if you are entering a romantic relationship or a business partnership with another individual, you may want to establish that this person is not wanted by the law. No matter the reason, the process for checking for arrest warrants is the same.
Should I see if there is a warrant for my arrest, or just wait until they come to arrest me?
Anytime you think you may be suspected of a crime, it is best to take a proactive approach and not a reactive one. By doing the research to see if there has been a warrant taken for your arrest, you will not be caught unaware. This means you will have time to consult with an attorney, even before you are arrested, so that your attorney can begin necessary investigative work. You also have time to gather evidence to prove that you are not guilty and to arrange bail money if necessary.
Confront the situation head-on
Arrest warrants are frightening. You now face a criminal record, legal ramifications, and possibly an unsettling of your entire life. You could be fired from your job, expelled from college, or unable to advance in your career. But wishing that arrest warrants will just disappear does not make them evaporate.
If you find that a warrant has been issued for your arrest, the first thing to do is not panic. The second, and perhaps most important, thing to do is contact a criminal defense lawyer who will listen and be available to walk you through every step of the process.