Dealing With Arrest Warrants
There’s some overlap between arrest warrants and search warrants. An arrest warrant allows law enforcement officers to take you into custody—and following arrest, you and your immediate surroundings can be searched. By contrast, a search warrant allows law enforcement officers to search a particular place (home, business, vehicle, or person)—and sometimes the search reveals items that give the officers grounds for arresting you. Finally, judges can issue combined search and arrest warrants. (See a sample arrest warrant and sample search warrants.)
Arrest warrants generally arise when either:
(1) The police ask a judge to issue an arrest warrant on the grounds that there’s probable cause that the suspect committed a crime,
(2) A defendant or witness fails to show up for court, so the judge issues an arrest warrant for that person. (These are called “bench warrants” since the judge issues them while sitting in court.)
Unlike search warrants, which are normally valid for only a week or two, arrest warrants can remain valid for years. Databases of arrest warrants exist in county, state and federal computer systems. When a suspect is detained or arrested, the officers generally run a computer search to see whether there are any warrants for that person. Searches of the arrest warrant records for a particular state can often be accomplished within a matter of minutes—for instance, while you’re waiting for the police to write you a ticket after they pulled you over for a traffic violation. A search that checks all the states and/or the federal system takes somewhat longer. Police and prosecutors don’t always bother to check beyond their own state, particularly in misdemeanor cases.
If there’s an arrest warrant out for you because you’re the target of a criminal investigation, it may be difficult to find out about it in advance. The officers who hope to arrest you will want to keep the warrant a secret, lest you go into hiding. A bench warrant, however, is a public record and you can verify whether one has been issued.
If you think there might be a bench warrant out for you, but you’re not sure, it’s safest to have a criminal defense lawyer or a bail bondsman check for you. Depending on the jurisdiction and charge, you may risk being arrested if you go and ask about warrants and it turns out that there is one. If you’re not able to get professional help, you can try asking the “clerk of the court” who handles criminal records (not civil records). It may be possible to do this over the phone, but usually you have to go to the courthouse and deal with the clerk in person to get help. Make sure you’re looking in the right court system. If you think there’s a federal case against you, talk to the clerk of the U.S. District Court. If you think there’s a state case, talk to the clerk of the county court—preferably the county the charges were filed in.
If there is a warrant out for your arrest, you may want to deal with the underlying case, so that you don’t have it hanging over your head. Usually, this involves going to court. It’s generally worthwhile to have a lawyer help set up the hearing and speak on your behalf. If you’re low-income, contact the public defender’s office of the county in which the warrant was issued. Meet with the duty attorney1 and explain that you want to clear your warrant. It will speed things up if you know the case number associated with your warrant.
If police officers come to the door with an arrest warrant for you, step outside and lock the door. Don’t go back inside after you’re in custody, or the police will be able to search the wingspan area2 of every room you enter. In addition, the officers could do a “protective sweep,” checking the whole house to make sure you don’t have an accomplice waiting to attack them. So don’t go back indoors to get your wallet or use the bathroom. Even if you’re not wearing much clothing, it’s safer to go to the police station as you are, than to let the officers into your home.
The reason for this is that you simply never know whether the police might find something in your house that could be used against you in court. Just because there’s no contraband (such as illegal drugs or weapons) in your home doesn’t mean it’s safe to let the police inside. Some seemingly unimportant item—a jacket, a key, a telephone list—might be used to link you with a crime.3 Besides, a family member, roommate, or friend could have left contraband in your home that you didn’t know about—and you might not be able to convince a judge or jury that this happened without your knowledge or permission. What’s more, there have been cases in which corrupt officers planted drugs or other incriminating items in a suspect’s home. So it’s best not to let law enforcement agents inside if you can avoid it—and one way to avoid it is to step outside immediately and go with the police if they show up with an arrest warrant.
Of course, it’s important to make sure that the police do have an arrest warrant for you, before leaving the safety of your home. If you answer the door and the police say, “Come on outside, so we can talk to you,” then it’s likely that they don’t have a warrant and are just trying to lure you out—where they can easily detain, question and pat search you, in the hope of finding grounds for arrest. You should say no, close the door, and call a criminal defense attorney.
Remember that when the officers do have an arrest warrant for you, hiding in your house won’t help, because police are allowed to force their way in to get you if they believe you’re in there. In that case, you might as well go outside and let them take you into custody, without letting them search your house or break your front door. (And at this point you should say: I’m going to remain silent. I would like to see a lawyer.)
Smart law enforcement officers will verify that the suspect is in a particular location, and cover all the exits, before they serve the arrest warrant. They may keep the house or apartment under surveillance until the suspect arrives, wait for him to go inside, and then serve the arrest warrant. This increases the chances that the police will get to go inside and look around—which the officers might not get to do, if they just arrested the suspect on his way to the door.
Of course, sometimes the police arrest the wrong person, especially when people share the same name or look alike. It’s very hard to convince the police, at the time they’re arresting you, that you’re not the person specified in the warrant. So if the police believe you’re the person for whom the warrant was issued, resign yourself to going to the station and don’t argue. Anything you say will be used against you in court, and the more you talk to the police, the more likely you’ll say something that can hurt you—even if you’re innocent. Just stick with the Magic Words, I’m going to remain silent. I would like to see a lawyer. If it’s a matter of mistaken identity, you and your lawyer can get the matter straightened out in court. Slowly but surely wins the case.
1. In most public defender's offices, the attorneys take turns being the one who answers questions from people who call or drop in—that lawyer is usually called the "duty attorney."
2. Your wingspan is the space within your immediate control (the area within lunging distance).
3. Harmless-looking objects can turn out to be damaging in court, just as harmless-sounding statements can turn out to be incriminating (see Use a Pie, Go to Jail).