What is the difference between a bench warrant, arrest warrant, and search warrant?

We receive a lot of phone calls from people who have questions about ”warrants.” Many of the people we help are confused because there are many different types of warrants. Five different types of warrants that people ask us about often are:

  • Arrest Warrants
  • Bench Warrants
  • Traffic Warrants
  • Scofflaw Warrants
  • Search Warrants, and
  • Death Warrants

An arrest warrant is used to temporarily hold someone in custody when they are accused of committing a crime. An arrest warrant is issued after the law enforcement authorities are able to show a judge or magistrate that there is “probable cause” to believe that the person named in the warrant committed the crime charged. The warrant must charge a specific offense — it cannot simply be a broad accusation of undefined criminal conduct. Probable cause is defined as specific and articulable facts or information that would cause a reasonable person to believe that a specific crime was committed and that the person named in the warrant probably committed that crime.

A bench warrant is issued after someone has already been arrested and failed to appear for court. To issue this type of warrant, the government must prove that the person actually knew about the court date. This is usually done by providing a subpoena that was signed by the person. The process of removing a bench warrant in Philadelphia has been dramatically changed over the past year. Please see our blog posted on May 6, 2012 for a discussion of those changes.

A traffic warrant is issued for someone who has failed to pay traffic tickets. Traffic warrants are often called scofflaw warrants. Failure to pay traffic tickets may seem like a minor issue to most people, but local governments and authorities take it very seriously because of the amount of revenue it provides to them. In difficult economic times revenues from tickets has taken on a much greater importance. In Philadelphia, warrant officers have conducted overnights sweeps of those accused of failing to pay multiple tickets.

A search warrant is signed by a judge or magistrate and permits law enforcement authorities to search a person, a place or private property such as files, computers, bank records, or cell phone information. Police must show the judge that probable cause exists before a search warrant is issued. This means that the police must provide specific and articulable facts that would cause a reaonable person to believe that a crime has been (or will be) committed and that evidence of the crime is likely to be found at the place to be searched. Search warrants are unconstitutional if they are not based upon probable cause, or if they do not describe with particularity the place to be searched or what evidence is being sought. A violation of constitutional rights can cause evidence to be suppressed or charges to be dismissed.

In addition there are special rules regarding how, and when, police conduct a search authorized by a search warrant. If the police violate these rules, evidence can be suppressed even if the search warrants did not violate any constitutional rights.

A death warrant is also sometimes referred to as an execution warrant. This type of warrant is an official order for the execution of a prisoner on death row. While our attorneys have handled capital cases – that is, cases where a person found guilty of the charges can be sentenced to lethal injection — none of our clients have ever received the death penalty.

If you have a question about any aspect of criminal law or criminal procedure, you should immediately speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney so that you can protect your rights and the rights of those you care about. Don't try to handle a complicated situation without professional help. You can ask our attorneys questions about your case in person, for free, and with no obligation. Michael Parkinson , Timothy Tarpey , and James Lloyd are criminal defense attorneys and former Philadelphia Assistant District Attorneys with more than 40 years experience who have handled thousands of criminal cases and litigated hundreds of motions to suppress evidence.

Talk to an experienced attorney to learn about your rights and defend them in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks, or Delaware Counties. Call us at (215) 352-3432.