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In the United States, warrants are an integral part of the criminal justice system. They are legal documents that give authorities the right to perform a particular act or to arrest someone.

Whether someone has a warrant out for their arrest or a search procedure, it's valuable to understand what a warrant entails. It's also equally important to understand the process of obtaining a warrant.

What Is a Warrant?

A warrant is a legal document issued by a competent officer, usually, a judge or magistrate, which permits the police or other authority to make an arrest, seize property, perform a search, or execute a judgment.

The U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights provide all citizens with certain fundamental freedoms and rights. Because of this, police officers, prosecutors, and other authorities cannot just go around making random arrests, performing arbitrary searches, or seizing private property.

They must use warrants. In addition to having a warrant, authorities must have a reason for suspecting the individual of a crime. They must provide sufficient factual information to establish probable cause that the person named in the warrant had committed the crime.

Warrants help ensure law enforcement procedures are constitutional, permitted, and effective. It also protects individual rights and freedoms by ensuring that authorities follow a strict set of guidelines.

What Are the Different Types of Warrants?

There are various types of warrants that can be issued, they include:

Bench warrant

This is a variant of the arrest warrant. It is usually issued when a suspect in a crime fails to show up for a required court appearance, is held in contempt of court, or violated any other court rules. Active bench warrants give police the right to arrest the person and bring them in front of a judge.

Search warrant

A warrant to search a particular premise for evidence of a specific crime is known as a search warrant. A judge or magistrate issues the warrant if they find probable cause to believe that such evidence exists. The police will present this information to the judge in a signed affidavit.

The document should indicate the specific location and time when the police could perform a search. Failure to specify this information could make the search warrant and anything attached to it void and invalid.

Types of search warrants include:

  • Judicial warrants - These are also known as criminal warrants. There's a need for probable cause for a judicial warrant to be issued. Therefore, the detective or investigator should have proof or evidence aside from a hunch.
  • DNA warrants - A DNA warrant allows the investigator or detective to get a DNA sample from a suspect. It can be a swab of saliva or mucus. It's important to note that a simple search warrant for a home doesn't allow the officer to take a DNA sample.
  • Administrative warrants - This search warrant is issued if there's a violation of a civil code. For example, if a health department fails to meet specific regulations like hygiene, then an administrative warrant can be issued. There should still be probable cause for this search warrant to be issued.

Arrest warrant

A magistrate or judge issues an arrest warrant that authorizes an arrest and detention. There must be probable cause that the person against whom the arrest warrant is issued committed a crime.

This type of warrant serves the purpose of protecting people from unlawful arrests. The warrant also serves as a notice to the person or persons under arrest of the charges pressed. An arrest warrant is preferred but not required to make a lawful arrest.

Fugitive warrant

This is an arrest warrant issued from another state or territory when the suspect is in the local jurisdiction.

Governor's warrant

A governor's warrant starts the extradition process for a person who flees a state to avoid arrest or prosecution, and is also called an extradition warrant. The governor or an authorized representative issues this warrant.

It's different from a search or arrest warrant that a magistrate or judge signs.  It can only be issued to return a fugitive arrested in another state back to the state where the charges were initiated.

How Do Warrants Work?

The police or any other permitted authority must submit a written statement called an affidavit to obtain a warrant. A deposition is a written statement that the person making the declaration (affiant) swears to be truthful.

It usually requires a signature and includes language acknowledging that the affiant is open to prosecution for perjury if any statement is untrue. The affiant must swear before an authorized individual, like a notary or clerk, for the affidavit to be legally valid.

An affidavit must include specific details that show the named individual had carried out the crime. Any description or wording that is very general in nature and could apply to anyone is not allowed, and will not be sufficient for a legal warrant.

For example, a generic statement,  describing a suspect's physical appearance or manners during the commission of a crime, will not be sufficient to procure a legal warrant. The story of the wrongdoing and any other personal narratives must include distinct information that would identify a particular individual. It also helps if those statements were corroborated by any witnesses to the crime, to make sure there is strong probable cause for a warrant to be issued.

If the judge or magistrate is satisfied, they issue a warrant. The document notes the alleged crime or need for the warrant, and empowers law enforcement to act, arrest, search, or seize property.

Warrants help officers of the law carry out their duties. They are an essential judicial tool, governed by rules that ensure suspects' rights are protected. However, it's important to bear one thing in mind - those subject to warrants are still innocent until proven guilty.