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 Warrants: Written Orders for Law Enforcement

  • Warrants are written orders from the judiciary that command an authorized agent of the law to perform tasks related to the administration of justice.
  • Examples: Arrest warrants (detention of an accused) and search warrants (authority to search a privately owned premise and confiscate items for criminal trials

Warrants are written orders from the judiciary that command an authorized agent of the law to perform some incidental task to administer justice. For instance, arrest warrants are used to call for the detention of an accused. In contrast, search warrants are used to grant police officers the authority to enter into a privately owned premise and confiscate any items from the property that can aid in serving justice through a criminal trial.

Hence, it would be safe to suggest that warrants are used for myriad purposes in law. While arrest warrants are by far the most common judicial orders in the category, bench warrants, which are used to detain individuals who have disobeyed a court order like a subpoena or a summons, are also frequently released. In fact, warrants may even be issued for collecting taxes and other state dues.

Various Purposes of Warrants in Law

  • Arrest warrants: Most common judicial orders in the category.
  • Bench warrants: Detain individuals who have disobeyed a court order, like a subpoena or a summons.
  • Other purposes: Collecting taxes and state dues.

The Fourth Amendment and its role in the issue of active warrants

  • Protection against unlawful arrests and searches.
  • Requirements: Probable cause derived from a written statement under oath and examination by a judicial officer.
  • Warrant specifics: Mention the person to be seized and/or the property to be searched.
  • Additional regulations: Title 18, Part II, Chapter 205 (search and seizures), and Rule 41 of the Federal Criminal Law (federal warrants).

A warrant for arrest implies the deprivation of liberty. In contrast, a search warrant authorizes police officers to enter the privately owned property and seize items that are under third-party ownership. Now, the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects citizens against unlawful arrests and searches. It states that the rights of people to be safe in their own homes and property owned by them shall not be violated unless there is probable cause derived from a statement made in writing and under oath, which a judicial officer examines.

According to the Fourth Amendment, the warrant should clearly mention the person to be seized and/or the property to be searched. The Fourth Amendment and several other constitutions regulate the release of arrest warrants and search warrants and how these judicial orders are executed. For instance, Title 18, Part II, Chapter 205 deals with search and seizures while federal warrants are issued in accordance with Rule 41 of the Federal Criminal Law.

The process of arrest warrant issued

  1. The indictment returned or criminal instrument filed in court.
  2. Submission of a probable cause affidavit and charge documents.
  3. The affidavit details the criminal incidents and evidence.
  4. Ancillary information about the accused is also presented for review.

The warrant process starts when an indictment is returned or a criminal instrument is filed in court by the prosecution, police, or the victim. This affirmation alleges that a crime was committed and that the suspect, against whom the warrant is being sought, is the one who committed this legal infraction.

When filing a petition for the issue of a warrant, the court services division of the sheriff’s office submits a probable cause affidavit along with the charge documents. This affidavit details the criminal incidents and the evidence. This information has to be adequate to convince the magistrate of the fact that the incident which occurred can be deemed a crime and that the person named in the affidavit can be held guilty for it.

Apart from this, ancillary information about the accused is also presented before the magistrate for review; this includes the name of the alleged offender, including the last name, his/her date of birth and physical characteristics. This is done to lower the chances of mistaken identity arrests.

When issuing the warrant, the judge may include the condition for arrest as well as release on the document. Typically, when the crime in question is a misdemeanor, the order will include the bail amount to be paid for securing release. However, when a directive for arrest is issued in capital crime cases or felonies, there will be no conditions for release stated on the arrest order. The offender will have to be brought before the magistrate for a bail hearing.

The conditions to be fulfilled when issuing arrest warrants and other legal processes

  • Misdemeanor crimes: Warrant may include bail amount for securing release.
  • Capital crime cases or felonies: No release conditions; offender brought before the magistrate for a bail hearing.

Certain requisites have to be met before active warrants are granted to the police. For one, before a pre-warrant hearing is held, information related to the case has to be submitted in court in the form of a sworn statement. The court session held for the issue of an active warrant is based on this document. When the case details presented in this petition fail to offer reasonable cause to assume the role of the accused in the criminal act, the witnesses are called in to offer testimony under oath.

Throughout this procedure, the most imperative consideration is the establishment of probable cause. This requirement not only applies to the issue of arrest warrants but also to search warrants. In contrast, when it comes to bench warrants and arrest orders issued for retaking a parole violator, there is no need to base these directives on a declaration of probable cause.

Disobeying court directives and dishonoring the conditions of probation, parole, or release on bail all amount to criminal transgressions, and the court already has details on these infractions. Hence, the warrant can be issued on information already known to the magistrate.

Why is an arrest warrant required?

  • Sworn statement submitted in court before a pre-warrant hearing.
  • Court session based on the submitted document.
  • Witnesses called in to offer testimony under oath, if necessary.
  • The establishment of probable cause is the most important consideration.

Although warrantless arrests that take place outside the home of the accused and in areas that are not readily accessible to the public are deemed lawful by the United States Supreme Court, at least when it comes to felony arrests, regardless of whether the incident occurred in view of an officer or not, and when it comes to misdemeanors, in occurrences that took place in front of law enforcement agents.

So, it would be safe to suggest that in all other circumstances that call for custodial detentions, a warrant will be required; these scenarios include:

  • Entering the home or the office of the accused or any other property owned by this person
  • Gaining admission into the home or office of a third party other than the accused
  • Accessing non-public places like restaurants, etc
  • When a misdemeanor is committed but the act did not occur in the presence of a police officer
  • If it is not at once evident who committed a felony and the name of the accused comes up after the investigation
  • A person who is accused of a criminal act has to be called in for questioning, but he/she is not cooperating (the police need significant proof in their hand to convince the court that this individual is associated with the crime)

It would also be prudent to mention here that active warrants give law enforcement agents a range of otherwise off-limits powers. For instance, with an arrest warrant, police officers can garner the support of law enforcement personnel from across the state and sometimes even outside.

Upon the issue of an active warrant, information pertaining to it is sent to a central database. From this repository, any peace officer can access information on all outstanding warrants, including those issued outside his/her jurisdiction. This aids in facilitating arrests of offenders across the country.

Not only geographical restrictions but also time limitations are removed once the sheriff’s office is granted an active warrant. This means that when the police have a warrant, they can take a person into custody even at night, although the case involves a misdemeanor. Also, arrest warrants can be used to effect detention at any time after the release of these orders, so even if several years have passed since the directive was released, the order will still be in effect till such time that the person named in it is detained.

The contents of a warrant

All active warrants must be in writing and contain a clear order directed to any law enforcement officer, public employee, or agent to serve or help execute the order. In terms of information, the warrant must contain the following:

  • A description of the act
  • Evidence that points to it being criminal in nature
  • The name of the defendant who is being accused of committing the crime
  • The proof that shows probable cause for his involvement in the incident
  • Name of the accused
  • Other identifiers like social security number, driving license number, etc
  • Address
  • Date of birth, age, gender, race
  • Information on any identifying physical attributes such as tattoos, etc
  • The date of issuance and the name of the county in which the warrant was released
  • The duty of the arresting officers is to bring the arrestee in front of the court after the arrest
  • Any special conditions to be followed when taking the person into custody
  • Bail and other release conditions
  • Signature of the magistrate

Different types of warrants

  • Bench warrants: These orders are issued to re-arrest defendants who have been discharged on bail and fail to appear in court as ordered. Civil tribunals also frequently use them to handle instances of disobedience of court directives.
  • A bench warrant authorizes police officers to enter any residence in which there is probable cause to believe that the defendant is hiding, even though these orders are issued without fulfilling the prerequisite of finding probable cause through an affidavit.
  • Telephonic warrants: As their name suggests, these orders are issued upon telephonic communication between the magistrate and the affiant or through facsimile or other electronic communication. There is no difference between active warrants procured by approaching the bench in person for a pre-warrant hearing and orders that have been issued when the complaint is filed through electromagnetic channels.
  • Outstanding warrants: These are active arrest orders kept back in the police and FBI databases because they could not be served immediately upon release. In essence, outstanding warrants have the very same powers as an active detention directive, and information on these can be found in all agencies that typically hold details on the issue and execution of arrest orders, such as the office of the clerk of court, the magistrate’s court and the local police among others.
  • Ramsey warrants: This is a legal term used to describe arrest orders issued before formal criminal charges against the defendant are filed in court. Normally, the criminal process starts with filing a probable cause affidavit with the magistrate. However, a formal complaint need not always be filed prior to the issuance of a warrant. In fact, pursuant to P.C. § 817(a), pre-filing arrest warrants are authorized by the statutes.
  • A John Doe warrant: Also called a DNA warrant, this order is issued without proper identification of the defendant. As stated earlier, arrest warrants must contain information about the person to be arrested, including his/her name and other data that will help in identifying the accused with reasonable certainty. However, these arrest orders merely describe the suspect as “John Doe” and provide a DNA profile
  • Steagald warrants: If an accused is housed in third party premises to gain entry into such a property in the absence of the owner, a search warrant will be required in addition to the active warrant issued in the name of the suspect. Such an order for search is called a steagald warrant.
  • Administrative warrants: These warrants are specifically issued for the retaking of parole violators and they are not subject to the filing of an oath or affirmation which is a Fourth Amendment requirement when it comes to the issue of regular arrest warrants.
  • Search warrant: The name of this legal directive is indicative of its nature; search warrants are issued when police need to gain entry into a property and search it for evidence. If any incriminating items are found, these can be confiscated during the operation. Search warrants like arrest orders are based on the probable cause requirement. However, these orders come with a finite validity period. Unlike arrest warrants, a search order can be procured in anticipation of evidence being available at a certain place at some point in the future.

The Statutory Limitations and the Legal protocol Surrounding the execution of arrest warrants

Arrests in felonies: With a warrant, the police can affect the arrest at any time of the day or night and from any place, including the defendant’s home or any other property owned by him, a public place, or a third party premise. However, a steagald warrant will be required if, during the course of arresting the accused, police officers have to enter a third party home.

When the arrest is made without a warrant, peace officers are not allowed to enter the home of the accused or anybody else to take the suspect into custody. So, a warrantless arrest cannot occur in the alleged offender’s home unless the arresting officer is already lawfully inside the home of the accused or the person who has to be taken into custody is standing on the threshold, or if exigent circumstances exist.

Arrest in misdemeanors: If the police have procured a warrant for the arrest of a person accused of a misdemeanor, this individual can be taken into custody at any time during the day or night and from any place as long as they are in a public area. However, peace officers cannot serve the warrant in the accused’s residence after 10 pm or before 6 am, unless the order has an endorsement for night service.

Without a warrant, a person can be detained only if the crime he is being accused of occurred in front of a police officer.

Night Service: This can be defined as a condition of arrest added to a warrant that authorizes law enforcement agents to make the arrest after sundown.

Does the police officer need to have a warrant on his person to execute it?

Although the law recommends that the arresting officer have a copy of the warrant in his possession, even if this is not the case, the arrest will not be in violation of the law. However, upon request, at the earliest possible opportunity, the law enforcement agency that has held the accused in custody will have to provide the warrant to the accused or his legal representatives.

Knock and Notice: This refers to the legal requirement for police officers to announce their presence and wait for a reasonable amount of time before entering the accused’s home by force. However, it must be noted here that knock and notice violations do not provide enough grounds for the suppression of evidence collected during the serving of a search order or an arrest warrant.

What happens after a person is detained under a warrant?

After detaining an alleged offender under a warrant or without it, the officers must proceed with the arrestee as commanded by law; this usually involves presenting the accused in court for a bail hearing within 48 hours of arrest. In the case of misdemeanor warrants which come with the condition of release, this would entail releasing the person upon obeying such clauses.

Arrests that occur within the issuing county: In case of a felony warrant, the accused who is being detained will have to be taken in front of the magistrate who issued the order for his arrest. Typically, the arrestee is taken to jail upon arrest, from where he/she awaits the availability of a magistrate for a bail hearing.

Arrest warrants served outside the issuing county: If the accused is arrested in any other geographical division other than the county in which the warrant was issued, the officer must:

  • Inform the arrestee in writing of his right to be presented before the magistrate of the county in which he has been arrested
  • Make a note on the warrant that the accused has been so informed
  • Take the arrestee in front of the magistrate upon his request

The magistrate may set bail in such a scenario as if the crime has occurred within his jurisdiction.

The validity of an arrest warrant

Arrest warrants stay in effect till such time that they can be served. Generally, arrest warrants come with a validity of no less than 99 years.

Who holds information on arrest records and outstanding warrants?

Information on arrest warrants is kept by the issuing authority, which is the court of the magistrate in this case, the law enforcement agency that applies for the warrant, and the office of the clerk of court which manages the court records for all tribunals in the area. In fact, you can find information on the issue of all legal processes in the court dockets database.

The state police also maintain a central repository of arrest records and crime history-related data in many states. Apart from this, information on all outstanding warrants is sent to a nationwide database maintained by the FBI. Yet, for civilian applicants, often the only way to get a warrant search done is by enlisting the services of a third-party information vendor.

While all states have their own version of the Freedom of Information Act, which regulates the dissemination of data held by government agencies, arrest-related information, including details on active warrant issues and other crime data, is not always considered to be a part of the public records. However, most wanted lists are often posted on the state police or the county sheriff’s website. This can certainly be used for a generic and rudimentary warrant search.

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