Generations of TV cop drama viewers are well-acquainted with the visual details of an arrest--from the reading of a criminal suspect's rights to the final definitive click of handcuffs when the character is led off to the station house, or waiting squad car. However, the actual nuances of an arrest warrant are less clear and a natural source of public confusion. This becomes even more apparent in discussing the differences between felony and bench warrants--which are often interchanged within the public's mind-set, but are distinctly separate procedures.
Understanding the differences between felony and bench warrants comes down to learning how they are generated. Failing to appear for court hearings, comply with judgments, or pay fines and costs is considered ample grounds for a bench warrant. In that scenario, the judge signs a warrant requesting that the offender be arrested, and brought in for a court hearing. The judge will then address the original charge and may impose further fines and costs, jail time or both, depending on the situation.
Dealing with felony warrants triggers a different set of steps. The process begins with the police department's request for an arrest, based on probable cause to show that person committed the offense detailed in the warrant. Contrary to popular belief, absolute proof is not required for probable cause to stick. The warrant simply states the police department's view of the facts, as the department understands them. Local prosecutors or judges must authorize the felony warrant before police can proceed and attempt to make their arrest.
Read More: Bench Warrant Penalties
Ignoring court proceedings often triggers serious consequences within the criminal justice system. "No shows" clog court dockets and require additional resources, especially in urban areas. A judge may also take such behavior personally, since it is her order being ignored. Former Village People lead singer Victor Willis learned that lesson in the fall of 2005, after being arrested for skipping a court date that had actually been scheduled as a "surrender" for a prior missed appearance. Willis was also on probation for a 2003 drug conviction. He only avoided a potential five-year prison term by pleading guilty and agreeing to enter a drug treatment program.
Distance is another critical factor that separates bench warrants from felony warrants. Bench warrants usually have a specified radius for the return of defendants caught in other areas--typically, from 50 to 100 miles, although some local courts have statewide pickup policies. Felony warrants have no such limitations, and can be served wherever a defendant is found. This triggers another formal process, known as extradition, in which the issuing state formally requests the defendant's return to answer the charges. How badly the defendant's home state wants him back depends on the severity of charges as well as the cost and difficulty of picking him up.
Treating old warrants as irrelevant is unwise. As a rule, warrants stay in the court system until the defendant is arrested, or they are recalled, regardless of category. The length of time spent on the run to avoid prosecution does not usually count toward the statute of limitations assigned to a certain charge. Self-surrender is the recommended option for people who find themselves on a warrant pickup list, because it opens the door for a more favorable resolution of the case and resumption of a regular life. Failing to resolve bench or felony warrants can negatively affect many steps that people take for granted, such as air travel, getting a driver's license or passing background checks for a job.
Ralph Heibutzki's articles have appeared in the "All Music Guide," "Goldmine," "Guitar Player" and "Vintage Guitar." He is also the author of "Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton," and holds a journalism degree from Michigan State University.