If there’s a warrant for your arrest, it’s normal to panic. While this is a serious situation, it’s important to first understand what a warrant is (and what it isn’t). You also need to know what kind of warrant has been issued, why it was issued, and what can be done to clear it up.
What Is a Warrant?
There are two types of warrants that allow police to take a person into custody: a bench warrant and an arrest warrant. While only one uses the term “arrest,” both types mean police must take you into custody.
A bench warrant is issued by a judge when a person misses a court date. For example, if you are given a summons by police for an offense such as urinating in public or carrying an open container of alcohol, but you don’t appear in court at the assigned date, a bench warrant can be issued. The same is true if you don’t respond to a civil suit or other court summonses.
A bench warrant can also be issued in certain criminal cases, such as DWI or shoplifting. For these and other minor offenses, you will have been arrested, processed, and given a chance to enter a plea before being given a court date. Again, if you miss that court appearance, a bench warrant can be issued.
An arrest warrant is only issued if you have been convicted of an offense but do not surrender for your sentence. This is important since many people believe (thanks to crime dramas) that an arrest warrant is issued when a person is charged with an offense but not yet arraigned. Of course, if prosecutors do decide to charge you with an offense following an investigation, police will seek to arrest you, but that is not the same as having a warrant issued against you.
How Do I Know if There’s a Warrant for My Arrest?
When a person is issued a summons or appearance ticket for a court date, that paper will state in clear language that failure to appear can result in a warrant for your arrest. Unfortunately, that’s as much warning as anyone will get. There will be no additional letter saying, “You missed your court date and a warrant has been issued.”
A lot of people find out about warrants against them during traffic stops. When an officer conducts a routine stop, he or she will run the driver’s license. Doing this will turn up any open warrants. The officer must then inform the driver that he or she has an open warrant. After this, the driver will be taken into custody.
Can I Avoid Being Arrested?
If you are speaking with an officer who knows there is an open warrant for you, there is no way to avoid being arrested. The officer must take you into custody as required by law. There is almost nothing you can say or do to prevent that.
The reason for this is simple: if the warrant is a mistake then it can be cleared up more easily at the precinct or in court. However, if the warrant is legal and you are the correct person, the officer cannot let you go. Honestly, it is in your best interest to go with the officer no matter what.
Can I Speak to an Attorney Before Getting Arrested?
If police are informing you there is a warrant for your arrest, you can and should ask to speak to an attorney. Keep in mind that an officer does not have to honor the request right then and there. The more cooperative you are with police, however, the more agreeable they may be about such requests. No matter what, you are entitled to legal counsel and will receive a chance to get it at some point in the process.
Could the Warrant Be a Mistake?
In theory, a person with a common name—e.g. Juan Lopez, James Smith, David Goldman, etc.—may be incorrectly identified as someone against whom there is a warrant. If you honestly believe this is the case, you can ask the officer to check the birthday, last known address, or other information that may be in the warrant. If any of that additional information doesn’t match, you could claim this is a mistake. However, an officer may still want to take you in just to be certain.
Again, if you are confident this is a mistake, then it is in your best interest to go willingly. Once you are fingerprinted, that can clear things up immediately; no two sets of fingerprints are the same.
Should I Turn Myself in if I Know There Is a Warrant for Me?
Yes. If you’ve realized—or even suspect—that there is a warrant for your arrest, you should go to the nearest police precinct and explain the situation. Alternatively, you can go to the courthouse that issued the warrant.
Before you do, it would be wise to speak with an attorney. No matter what the circumstances, you have a constitutional right to legal counsel and you should leverage that.
What Happens if I Don’t Turn Myself in?
This depends on what the warrant is for. Every precinct has a warrant officer who maintains a list of people with open warrants against them. If the warrant is related to a serious offense, such as aggravated assault, major drug charges, or anything else that might make you seem like a danger to the community, this officer or a team of officers will make an effort to bring you in. They may approach you at home, at work, or any known place that you frequent.
If the warrant is related to a minor offense, such as shoplifting or vandalism, then it is unlikely that anyone will come looking for you. In fact, many open warrants sit unaddressed for years only to come up unexpectedly during traffic stops.
Do Warrants Ever Expire?
A warrant never expires. A warrant can be 20 years old or more and still be justification for an arrest.
I once arrested a woman during a traffic stop for an old warrant. When she was young she had shoplifted something worth about $100. However, at the time that I arrested her, she was gainfully employed and had no other run-ins with the law. When she got to the judge, he decided that the offense was too minor and too old to matter. She had clearly matured and changed her ways, and since it was unlikely the retailer would still care about the case, the judge tossed it.
Of course, not all minor cases go that way. Another judge might have instead issued a sentence of probation or a fine. And serious offenses are not likely to be overlooked at all.
What if the Warrant Is from Another County?
Any warrant issued in the state of New York will show up when the officer runs your license or takes your fingerprints. If you are pulled over by the NYPD and a warrant against you was issued in Sullivan County, for example, the NYPD officer can see it, arrest you, and process you. The same can be true if the warrant is issued in another state.
Will a Warrant Come Up in a Background Check?
Most background checks won’t pull up open warrants. However, if the warrant is related to a criminal conviction, the conviction itself will show up.
While no one wants to have a warrant issued for their arrest, it is possible to have the matter handled so that it doesn’t have a devastating impact on your life. The two most important things to do are to cooperate with police (without making any incriminating statements of course) and hire an attorney.