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A warrant is a legal document issued by a judge or court official that allows police to execute an arrest or search for evidence related to a crime.
An arrest warrant is an alternative way to arrest a person when police officers were not witnesses to the crime or were not in pursuit of a suspect following a crime.
It takes some time for police to gather information on a crime, and the worst crimes generally get the most attention and highest priority out of concern for public safety (such as a murder). Lower level crimes may take months for officers to investigate depending on the department's workload. The work that goes into a warrant is all of the investigation including interviews with witnesses, physical evidence, and research about the suspect's background and motive or behavior (such as previous criminal activity).
Warrant affidavits or applications are often prepared in conjunction with a district attorney who will prosecute the case in court. The application includes as much specific information as possible about the person or items that police are seeking in relation to a crime. Because the information can include details about witnesses and information known only to investigators and the person who committed the crime, the document is kept secret.
A warrant lists the wanted person's name, address, social security number, place of work, birthdate, hair color, eye color, names of friends and relatives, tattoos and other birthmarks, and places he or she is known to visit. All of this information helps police to determine if they have the right person.
Bench warrants are automatically generated when a person does not show up for a court hearing, skips bail, or does not complete court-ordered tasks such as paying fines, or taking a court-ordered class. Bench warrants are also arrest warrants and are treated the same.
After a warrant is signed by a court official (judge or magistrate) it is entered into a database of active warrants that can be accessed by a wide number of police departments and often the F.B.I.'s national database. While priority is given to serious crimes, this active warrant can result in your arrest anywhere at any time. Just a few of the most dangerous wanted criminals actually have police actively searching for them; most people have little idea whether a warrant has been obtained for their arrest until it happens.
Due to the secret nature of most arrest warrants, a person may be arrested at work, while on vacation, while traveling for business, when leaving a restaurant with family, or any other time he or she comes in contact with police for even a minor incident (a car accident, a loud party, being with another person who is questioned by police). Police may also recognize a known suspect and be aware that there's a warrant for his arrest.
A background check will often uncover unserved warrants, and that could complicate an applicant's attempts to rent an apartment, get a new job, qualify for a mortgage, get a gun permit, or get a travel visa. If the employer or realtor tells you an outstanding warrant is why you were denied a job or apartment you'd be lucky. Then you can turn yourself in and take care of the situation before the police catch up with you unexpectedly.
Some states allow online warrant searches to determine if you've missed paying a fine or a court appearance.
Call your local police department or courthouse to find out if there's a warrant for your arrest. Sometimes a court hearing date is buried in small print on a traffic citation or the court did not have your most recent address to send you a notice of a hearing (or of jury duty), resulting in a bench warrant. Many small, misdemeanor warrants are cleared this way, by paying a fine or appearing before a magistrate.
If you're wanted on a felony warrant, you may turn yourself in or have a defense attorney speak to the district attorney's office to make arrangements.