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What is a Warrant?
A warrant is a formal document issued by a magistrate or judge authorizing a competent authority to execute an action that would otherwise be illegal. In the United States, the writ allows law enforcement officials to administer justice and protects them from damages if they execute the warrant.
United States courts issue various types of warrants for specific purposes. Some common warrants in the country are search, arrest, bench, execution, and complaint warrants. Others include Governor's warrants, fugitive warrants, bench warrants, alias warrants, and tax warrants. Therefore persons may learn about warrants for a search of their properties, their arrest, or any other purpose stated in the writ.
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution requires courts to establish probable cause before issuing warrants. Law enforcement officials (such as police officers, sheriffs, or district attorneys) must submit factual information to prove that the person to be named in the warrant committed an offense. The information must be specific as courts will not honor a warrant request if the law enforcement's description can easily apply to anyone. An officer will be held accountable if they execute an unauthorized action infringing on an individual's rights. However, officers may lawfully carry out warrantless actions on some occasions. For example, if a property owner consents or if they witness suspicious acts suggestive of criminal activity.
How to Find Out if You Have a Warrant in the United States
U.S residents can determine if they have existing warrants in the country by conducting a warrant search. There are several ways to run this search:
- Request a criminal history record (also called an Identity History Summary Check)
- Search federal court records using the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) service.
- Search a state's court website
- Search a local law enforcement's official website
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) maintains arrest information, warrants, and other data about US residents. Individuals can request their identity history summary (rap sheet) from the FBI through one of three methods.
Electronically - Inquirers can make electronic requests by going online and following the instructions under the ''Obtaining Your Identity History Summary'' section. Requesters must provide their email addresses when initiating the application process. They will receive confirmation emails, secure links, and unique personal identification numbers to complete their online applications. Also, the application process requires a fingerprint submission. Requesters can submit their prints by visiting any participating US Post Office location after completing the electronic application and paying the applicable fees. Alternatively, they can send their completed fingerprint cards via email to the address provided in their confirmation emails. Typically, the processing time for electronic identity history requests is about three to five working days after the fingerprint card submission. However, it may take longer if a requester chooses mail delivery for their identity summary.
Mail - An inquirer must first obtain and complete an Application Information Form. They must provide telephone numbers, complete mailing addresses, and fingerprint cards containing their names and birth dates. An $18 application fee applies. Payments must be submitted via money order, check, or credit card. To pay with credit cards, inquirers must obtain and complete the Credit Card Payment Form. Money orders or checks should be payable to the United States Treasury. The FBI will not accept identity history payments as business checks, personal checks, or cash. Paying through those channels can delay request processing time. An extra $18 fee applies for each additional copy of the report. Any requester who cannot pay the $18 fee can request a waiver by providing a notarized claim and proof of indigence. After putting together all the requirements, inquirers should cross-check their mail requests to ensure they are complete before sending. Requests should be forwarded to the following mailing address:
FBI CJIS Division - Summary Request
1000 Custer Hollow Road
Clarksburg, WV 26306
The FBI returns request results (on standard white paper) through the U.S. Postal Service by first-class mail. The processing time for mail requests is between two to four weeks. However, it may take longer if the selected delivery option for the rap sheet is via mail.
- FBI-Approved Channeler - Inquirers can submit identity history summary requests to an FBI-approved Channeler. FBI-approved channelers are private businesses contracted by the FBI to submit Identity History Summary information requests on behalf of the public. They collect inquirers' information, fingerprints, and applicable fees and submit the data and payments electronically to the FBI. Channelers are authorized to retrieve the summary check results for inquirers and disseminate them to the individuals. Worthy of note is that channelers may charge additional fees above the FBI fee. The FBI provides a list of approved channelers for submissions. Channelers will inform inquirers of the processing times for their requests.
Inquirers can also search federal court records using the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) service. PACER is a records system containing records of federal court documents. The US courts Administrative Office maintains the PACER and allows the public instant electronic access to its database. An inquirer must first register online for a PACER account. Registered users can search the specific federal court where a case was filed. Alternatively, they can search federal court cases by national index. Inquirers can contact the PACER service center via email or phone at 1 (800) 6856-676 (between 8:00 a.m. and 6:pm. on weekdays) for assistance in finding federal court records. Court clerks' offices also have public access terminals for interested parties to access information.
Some federal courts also allow phone access to their records. For instance, the United States Supreme Court and bankruptcy courts offer court case information over the phone. Although, the data available through this channel is limited. The Supreme Court Clerk's Automated Response System (CARS) provides a standard touch-tone system for callers to know the status of court documents through an automated response system. Interested parties can access this service by calling 1 (202) 3034-479. Bankruptcy courts also offer central touch-tone phone access called a Multi-court Voice Case Information System. An inquirer can call 1 (866) 8029-222 and either mention the court's name or enter its unique extension code to access case information.
Alternatively, persons can leverage the public records of state courts or local police departments by searching their databases. The procedures for obtaining arrest warrants from different US courts are peculiar to each state. Typically, state courts make their public records available online. There are online links of different US courts for users to obtain the contact information of their local courts. Inquirers can also visit their courthouses to inspect electronic and paper copies of the records. Police departments usually have online resources that help interested persons view active arrest warrants (first and last names included).
Also, inquirers can contact their local police departments to ask about existing warrants. However, law enforcement officials can act upon valid arrest warrants in the process (leading to the subject's arrest). They can also contact local criminal defense attorneys for assistance in searching US existing warrants.
Records of warrants issued or executed in various jurisdictions are also maintained and by third-party websites. While third-party sites make accessing these records substantially easier, the information available on the sites may vary since they are not government run sources. To obtain warrant records from a third-party site, the requesting party may be required to provide:
- The personal information of the alleged suspect
- Information regarding the issuing officer
- The location where the warrant was issued.
How Long Does a Warrant Stay Active in the United States?
The validity period of a warrant issued in the United States depends on the warrant type and the state where the warrant was issued. Some warrants do not expire in all US states. For instance, a bench warrant will remain active unless cleared by a competent authority such as a judge. Otherwise, the individual named on the writ will remain subject to the warrant till death.
Conversely, other warrants will expire once the statute of limitations for the associated offenses expire. Arrest warrants may expire, depending on whether or not the offense is a felony or misdemeanor. Felony arrest warrants never expire; therefore, law enforcement officials can easily execute the warrants anytime the subjects show up. Misdemeanor arrest warrants expire once the statute of limitation period elapses (typically between 180 days to two years). However, a court can easily reissue a misdemeanor arrest warrant on request by law enforcement. Therefore, even if police officers do not actively search out warrant subjects, waiting out a warrant or ignoring it will not make it go away. Other warrants that can expire in the United States include search warrants and complaint warrants.
It is advisable to get rid of warrants quickly to prevent embarrassments at police checkpoints, unexpected arrests, or other complications during immigration or employment. Persons can discover their valid warrants by searching law enforcement websites or court websites. If a warrant exists, they can contact a criminal defense attorney to help with the case. A lawyer could quash a warrant if a subject's right to a speedy trial was violated. Alternatively, the warrant subject can post cash bail at the court clerk's office.
What is a Search Warrant?
A US search warrant is a legal document issued by a judge or magistrate allowing law enforcement officials to execute searches on persons or private properties to obtain proof of unlawful activity. Search warrants permit law enforcement to enter properties such as homes, vehicles, or business premises to confiscate evidence upon discovery. A court can issue a search warrant for crime evidence, property intended for committing a crime, or products of a crime. Officers can also arrest subjects of a warrant or install and use tracking devices when executing the warrant. Federal law enforcement can issue an affidavit or other information requesting a search warrant from a judge or magistrate. If there is probable cause, the judge must issue the search warrant as authorized by Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
In the United States, searches conducted according to warrants must be according to the Fourth Amendment of the US constitution. As provided under the Fourth Amendment, police searches must be reasonable. Unreasonable searches are those conducted by officers without valid search warrants or probable cause that evidence of an illegal act is present. Search warrants must also be specific, clearly describing the persons, places, or things law enforcement officials are authorized to search. Generally, an officer must obtain additional search warrants from a judge or magistrate before searching any other location. A court could dismiss or reduce the charges against a search warrant subject if an enforcement officer did not follow the Fourth Amendment's provisions.
Title 18, Section 3105 of the United States Code stipulates the laws surrounding issuing federal warrants in the country. Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure restates the provisions of 18 US Code §3105 and extends it further. The amendments provided in Rule 41 allow law enforcement to successfully execute remote searches on properties concealed by technology in virtual locations (e.g., cyber crimes like computer hacking and child pornography on computer devices). Only an authorized person can serve a search warrant in the United States. Some of the reasons why judges or magistrates issue search warrants are:
- When there is a pending arrest warrant against an individual
- If the property described in the search warrant was used to commit a crime
- When a person possesses property or things for use in committing a crime or someone who may conceal criminal evidence by transferring it to another person
- When a property to be confiscated was used to exploit a minor sexually.
- If the property or thing stated in the warrant was stolen or embezzled
- When the property or thing subject to the search is a felony crime evidence
- When the property or thing to be seized is a deadly weapon such as a firearm at a domestic violence scene involving a threat to human life.
Per Rule 41, United States federal search warrants on persons or properties are to be executed within 14 days of issuance by the magistrate or judge. The warrants usually authorize law enforcement to carry out searches during the day (between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.), except stated otherwise by the judge. The executing officer must immediately return the search warrant (and a copy of the inventory of all items seized during the warrant execution) to the judge or magistrate stated in the warrant. A search warrant not executed within the stipulated time frame becomes void. However, a judge or magistrate can reissue the warrant if there is still probable cause.
When a search warrant is for electronically stored data, the warrant can permit law enforcement to copy the electronic information or confiscate the storage media. They may review the copied information at a later time. Worthy of note is that the time allowed for executing a search warrant does not apply to the off-site review. It only pertains to the data seizure and on-site copying.
If a search warrant authorizes a tracking device installation, it must describe the specific property or person to be tracked. It must also state the tracking duration and the magistrate or judge to whom the warrant must be returned. Tracking-device search warrants must be executed within 10 days of authorization. The period for using the device must not exceed 45 days. However, the court may grant an extension (not exceeding 45 days). The enforcing officer must return the warrant and tracking device to the magistrate or judge within 10 days after disabling the device.
Although the Fourth Amendment restricts warrantless arrests in the United States, there are some exceptions. For instance, police officers can search a person or property without a warrant if a subject consents, if they observe criminal evidence in plain view, or during an arrest. Officers can also execute warrantless searches on people on probation (they usually consent to the searches as part of their release condition).
What Can Make a United States Search Warrant Invalid?
A United States search warrant can become invalid under certain circumstances. For example, if the warrant violates the Fourth Amendment. This law prohibits law enforcement from executing unreasonable searches on an individual or property without probable cause. Hence, there must be reasonable grounds suggesting the subject mentioned in the warrant is linked to a crime. Per Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, a judge or magistrate must issue a warrant after receiving information or an affidavit from peace officers suggesting probable cause for a search.
Also, the warrant must specify the person, property, or thing subject to search. In addition, Rule 41 stipulates that a search must be executed during the day (between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.) unless the warrant states otherwise. Search warrants specify a validity period during which law enforcement can execute a search. Therefore, if an officer fails to follow the stipulated procedure for obtaining a warrant or performs it wrongly, the search warrant will be invalid. If an officer searches a property, person, or place not described in the warrant, that search warrant is invalid. Hence, any item seized during that search cannot be used as court evidence.
Under Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, an individual aggrieved by an illegal search warrant can file a motion for a property or thing seized during the search to be returned. They must file the motion in the district where the unlawful seizure occurred and present factual evidence to the court concerning the issue. If the court grants the motion, it will order the subject's property returned. The court may also prevent law enforcement from accessing the property in the future or using it in later proceedings. However, the court may deny a plaintiff's motion if the officer performed the search according to the warrant.
What is an Arrest Warrant in the United States?
An arrest warrant in the United States is a legal document issued by a competent authority permitting the arrest of someone by a bearer (law enforcement officer). The Fourth Amendment protects individuals against unlawful arrests arising from unreasonable searches. According to Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, a judge or magistrate can issue an arrest warrant when probable cause has been established (there must be evidence that an offense was committed and reason to believe the person named in the warrant committed it). Per Rule 4, an arrest warrant must contain the following information:
- The defendant's name or a description of the defendant for easy identification (if their name is unknown)
- A description of the alleged offense
- City where the warrant was issued
- An order for the defendant's arrest and immediate arraignment before a magistrate judge or local judicial officer (if a magistrate or judge is unavailable)
- The issuing magistrate or judge's signature
An arrest warrant will be invalid if these details are not contained in the writ. Also, the officer must present the arrestee before a magistrate judge without unnecessary delay unless otherwise permitted by a court. Rule 4 also requires an executing officer to return the arrest warrant to the judge after executing the arrest. If an officer does not execute a warrant, they must return it to the judge (or local judicial officer) for cancellation.
A United States arrest warrant authorizes an executing officer to arrest and detain defendants at any location. Generally, misdemeanor arrests are executed during the day (between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.) unless otherwise stated by a judge. Conversely, felony arrests are executable at any time.
Law enforcement officers are not mandated to pre-inform persons mentioned in arrest warrants before executing arrests. Hence, people are usually not aware of their impending arrests until officers show up. US residents can find outstanding arrests in their names through warrant searches. A person who discovers a pending warrant can voluntarily appear in court before an officer executes the arrest. However, it is best to contact a criminal defense lawyer to help clear the warrant and prevent criminal charges or imprisonment.
What is a Child Support Arrest Warrant?
In the U.S. a child support arrest warrant is a writ issued by a magistrate or judge authorizing someone's arrest for failure to pay child support. Per 18 US Code §228, it is illegal for a person to deliberately avoid paying child support. Hence, a court can issue a child support arrest warrant against defaulters. Although most child support cases are handled at state and local levels, federal jurisdiction applies in a few child support cases. The child supports payment data released by the United States Census Bureau revealed that less than half (43.5%) of custodial parents in the country received full child support in 2015. That year, 25.8% got the partial payment, while over 30% had no support from noncustodial parents. Also, a 2017 report showed that almost half (49.4%) of all custodian parents had arrangements (both informal and legal) for receiving full child support. However, only 45.9% got complete support. About 24% of custodial parents received partial payment in 2017, while over 30% shouldered their child-raising expenses alone without help from noncustodial parents.
Depending on the case, a child support warrant may be issued on a civil or criminal basis. However, most child support arrest warrants are civil. These warrants are issued after a party (custodial parent) presents evidence to the court proving that a noncustodial parent is defaulting in their child support payment (the required amount is often stated in a court order). The judge can issue an arrest warrant for the other party authorizing law enforcement to arrest and arraign them in court.
A payor (parent owing child support) risks a criminal warrant if they owe large sums in child support and a prosecutor files a case against them. In this case, the noncustodial parent may face severe punishment like large fine sums, jail time exceeding one year, or both. Generally, a child support warrant aims to retrieve unpaid child support and ensure that a parent complies with subsequent child support payments.
What is a United States Bench Warrant?
A United States bench warrant is a writ issued by a ''sitting'' judge ordering the arrest of someone who did not comply with a court order after receiving notice. Some actions that can result in bench warrants are:
- Failure of a witness to appear for a court hearing
- Non-payment of a court-ordered fine
- Refusal to appear in court after a mandate
- Violation of probation or post-release terms
- Non-compliance with spousal or child support payment
- Non-payment of a traffic citation or ticket
- Failure to appear in court for a progress report
Persons with unresolved cases can run United States warrant searches to ensure they have no pending bench warrants. They can also search the databases of states they reside in to ensure there are no pending bench warrants in their names. Unlike other warrant types that can expire, bench warrants will remain active unless resolved by the court after a subject appears in court willingly or by arrest.
In the United States, What is Failure to Appear?
A Failure to Appear (FTA) is a variation of a bench warrant issued by a court against a defendant, juror, or witness for failing to appear for a hearing at a required time and day. FTAs are among the most common warrants in the United States. 18 US Code §3146 stipulates the penalties for failure to appear. For instance, if someone deliberately fails to show up in court (according to their release conditions) or refuses to appear for a court sentencing, they risk punishment depending on the severity of charges levied against them. A misdemeanor FTA charge can result in a one-year maximum jail term, fine, or both. By contrast, prior convictions for felonies or other offenses can lead to higher fines, longer jail terms, or both.
Ignoring or trying to abscond an FTA warrant can result in the suspension of a defendant's driver's license. If law enforcement eventually catches up with an offender, they can face huge fines.
How Long Do You Have to Stay in Jail for a Warrant for Missing Court in the United States?
In the United States, intentionally missing a court hearing is an offense. Offenders may face incarceration upon conviction. As provided in 18 US Code §3146, the penalty depends on the gravity of the offense they committed, warranting their appearance in court. The sentence applies if the individual is awaiting a trial, appealing after a conviction, or surrendering to serve a sentence for a previous offense. The associated jail sentences are as follows:
- 10 years minimum jail term if the person committed a crime punishable by 15 years minimum jail term, a life sentence, or death
- Five years minimum jail term if they committed a felony punishable by incarceration for five years or more.
- Two years maximum jail term for any other felony
- One year maximum jail term if the person committed a misdemeanor.
These jail terms may be served alone, replaced with a fine, or combined with a fine, depending on the court's decision. Also, the imprisonment must be served consecutive to any existing jail sentence (after the subject finishes serving time for their previous offenses).
In the United States, What is Failure to Pay?
A failure to pay is a legal authorization issued by a competent authority (judge or magistrate) against someone who defaults in paying a court-ordered fine after a specified timeline. It is a type of bench warrant that United States residents can encounter. The defaulter can face a misdemeanor charge if the court believes they willingly neglected the payment.
A failure to pay can be imposed for unpaid traffic tickets, criminal fines, or fines imposed by a court for an ordinance violation. For instance, the court can issue summons (Rule 4, Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure) to arrest someone who fails to pay a fine for a federal traffic ticket (ticket issued by federal law enforcement for violating traffic rules on federal property). Persons charged with such violations risk suspension or revocation of their driver's licenses
What is a No-Knock Warrant in the United States?
A no-knock warrant in the United States is a permit issued by a magistrate or judge authorizing law enforcement to enter premises without prior notification of their presence (by knocking). Typically, police officers notify residents before entering a private property (knock-and-announce rule), but this does not apply when executing no-knock warrants. This writ is issued when knocking and announcing before entry might compromise a police investigation. Some of the grounds for no-knock-warrants are:
- The occupant might hide or destroy the evidence of interest
- The occupants might arm themselves against the law enforcement officer
- A suspect might flee
- The police officer or another party might be endangered.