What Is a Warrant?
A warrant is a legal document issued by a judge or other judicial officer (such as a magistrate) that authorizes a law enforcement officer to perform an act related to justice administration—typically to:
- Search and seize a person's property.
- Arrest someone.
- Bring a person before the court.
Generally, a law enforcement officer must present the judge with enough evidence to prove probable cause (i.e. reasonable grounds for making the arrest or property search).
Sometimes, a police officer obtains a warrant and issues it immediately; other times, the warrant becomes outstanding because the officer hasn't been able to find the person in question—he or she may not even be aware they have a warrant against them.
NOTE: Most often, a judge must approve and sign a warrant before the law enforcement officer is authorized to act; however, there are some exceptions to this rule—particularly when the situation makes it impractical to obtain a warrant.
Common Types of Warrants
Warrants serve various purposes, including tax collection and other financial transactions. However, the most common types of warrants are arrest warrants, search warrants, and bench warrants.
Upon agreeing to probable cause, a judge will issue an arrest warrant authorizing a law enforcement officer to arrest a specific person based on a charge that they have committed a crime. Generally, the arrest warrant must include:
- The accused person's name.
- When the accused person's name is unknown, the arrest warrant is called a “John Doe" warrant. Often, such warrants are based on a person known by sight but not name, or when a DNA profile is made but there currently is no DNA match.
- Any unique personal characteristics.
- Specific description of the crime.
Again, upon agreeing to probable cause, a judge will issue a search warrant (sometimes called a “search and seizure warrant") authorizing a law enforcement officer to search a specific person and/or his or her premises for property that could be related to a crime. Such property can be very wide-ranging, to include:
- Cell phones.
- Instrumentalities of crime (e.g. a mask or gloves used during a robbery).
Once the property is searched and seized, the law enforcement officer brings it to the judge named in the warrant.
Sometimes referred to a “capias" or an “alias warrant," a bench warrant authorizes a law enforcement officer to bring a specific person to court, generally whenever the person:
- Doesn't respond to a citation, or a court subpoena or summons.
- Disobeys a court order that puts him or her in contempt of court.
- Must be transferred from jail to the court for some proceeding.
Search for a Warrant
First, check to see if your county's courthouse provides an searchable online database for outstanding warrant information; if so, just search the name and note any available details.
When a government website isn't available, perhaps the simplest way to find a warrant is to contact the clerk of court in your county and ask (if it's a federal case, contact the federal clerk of court for your district).
Of course, you might not feel comfortable asking about outstanding warrants in your own name; if the situation is serious enough, consider working with an attorney or bail bondsman.
Regardless of your method, understand that while most criminal cases are public record (and therefore easier to obtain), sometimes civil cases are private. When it's a private civil case, you might need to work with an attorney.
Online Warrant Search
Some third-party companies advertise their services to find outstanding warrants for you.
Generally, these businesses aren't affiliated with the U.S. government (and state as much in their disclaimers), gather the kind of information you could actually find on your own (with a little work or a simple phone call), and charge a fee.
Still, using one could be beneficial if you aren't comfortable doing the research for yourself and aren't ready to hire an attorney.
Warrants & the DMV
Your driver license or motor vehicle agency doesn't provide information regarding checking or searching for warrants; however, sometimes getting pulled over brings a warrant to light.
For example, if you have an outstanding warrant and get pulled over for a ticket, the officer might run your driver's license and vehicle registration information through the system. The basic personally identifying information included on those documents could alert the officer that there's been a warrant issued for you, and it's likely the officer will arrest you on the spot.
Responding to Outstanding Warrants
Once you've determined you have an outstanding warrant and why, it's time to determine how to proceed. Warrants don't just disappear.
Obviously, your best option is to take action; your warrant will eventually come to light, and the consequences could be worse the longer you wait.
Sometimes, the situation is as simple as appearing in court and paying a fine (you might even obtain this information from the court clerk); however, there's no guarantee you won't be arrested once you announce yourself in court—and, of course, not all situations are that simple.
Probably your best move is to work with an attorney. Your lawyer can contact the court and find out whether you have a warrant, the exact nature of the warrant, and the best legal way to handle the warrant.