Types of Warrants

Warrants are legal documents issued by court officers that require action. Some give police permission to do specific things such as arrest someone, or search a property in conjunction with a criminal investigation. Other warrants are simply to collect unpaid fines or to appear for a hearing.

Warrants may show up on a person's criminal background check and his or her financial background check. It's important to know what's contained on your own background checks to avoid having an outstanding warrant derail an attempt to get a job, a mortgage, or to be approved for a visa application.

Many jurisdictions have thousands, or even tens of thousands, of outstanding warrants. Many are for traffic tickets or small incidents, nonpayment of taxes or fines. Fewer warrants are related to criminal investigations or criminal charges. The existence of a warrant of any kind will often block an individual from accessing government services including renewing driver's licenses or registering a vehicle. A court appearance may be required to provide proof to the judge that the outstanding payment has been made before the judge or magistrate recalls (cancels) the warrant.

Types of Warrants

An arrest warrant is a document that names a specific person and calls for him (or her) to be brought before the court. There are two ways these warrants are created:

  1. some are initiated by police and brought to a court official (judge or magistrate) along with material that constitute probable cause, such as witness statements, physical evidence, and surveillance. If approved by a judge or magistrate, the person named can be arrested on the warrant and taken to a police station, booked, then held until his court appearance. At this appearance the judge decides if the suspect should be granted bail or held until trial.
  2. bench warrants (sometimes called an alias warrant) are another sort of arrest warrant that are generated by the court itself when an individual has not completed tasks required by a court, such as not appearing for a scheduled court date, not completing court-ordered classes, or ignoring a summons. A bench warrant is also issued if a person skips bail or does not report to his probation or parole officer for a period of time.

Search Warrant

Similar to an arrest warrant, this is a document that gives police permission to search a person's home, office, auto, or other property for evidence that is reasonably linked to a crime. Police seek search warrants by bringing evidence to a court official, who decides if the information meets the probable cause threshold for a warrant.

Search warrants have limited scope: if the court official approves a search of a home, police need a separate warrant to search an individual's business or vehicle.

Police may search an individual or his vehicle or home without a warrant in some circumstances, especially when the suspect has fled arrest and police are in hot pursuit. Other times when police may conduct a search without a warrant include when the individual gives police permission to search, when police have reason to believe that evidence is being destroyed, when evidence of a crime or criminal act is in plain sight, when a person is heard asking for help from inside a residence, and when the public is in danger. Vehicles on the scene of a crime or which a suspect recently got out of are fair game for warrantless searches as well as police are able to make a reasonable assumption that evidence may be found inside.

Fugitive Warrant

If you're wanted for a crime and leave the state to avoid a scheduled court appearance the court may issue a fugitive warrant for you in another state where they believe you may be living. A fugitive warrant is an arrest warrant that requires the cooperation of another state to arrest and detain you. Being labeled a fugitive can have legal implications as a prosecutor may seek to elevate criminal charges and have bail revoked in light of your unwillingness to stand trial. Transferring custody of a fugitive arrested on a warrant is called extradition, which triggers specific deadlines for law enforcement and courts to act within.

Capias Warrant

Similar to a fugitive warrant, this type recalls an individual to the court after he or she has been found guilty but has neglected to complete the court-required sentence of public service, restitution, probation, or classes.

Civil Warrants

If you seek to sue someone in small claims court, you are swearing out a civil warrant that will call that person to court. It is not the same as an arrest warrant; it is simply a legal demand for appearance that court officers have to approve and a sheriff's deputy must serve on the person named. In addition, courts may issue warrants for different physical items, such as something that was stolen or is being held by a person and is of interest in a civil case. This is called a warrant in detinue.