What Is a Fugitive Warrant?

By Mardi Link - Updated June 01, 2017
Lawyer speaks to judge on behalf of his client

A fugitive is someone who is consciously fleeing from the law. A warrant is a written judicial authorization to search private property, confiscate potential evidence, or place someone under arrest. A fugitive warrant combines these two separate law enforcement issues and is defined as an arrest warrant issued in one jurisdiction for someone who is a fugitive from another jurisdiction.

History

The use of the fugitive from justice warrant is almost as old as the United States itself; its actual beginnings are debated but it was widely used by the Texas Rangers in the 1800s. One of the first times it was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court was in the 1906 case, Appleyard vs. Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Arthur Appleyard was indicted in Massachusetts for grand larceny but was never arrested because he had fled to New York. As it turned out, Appleyard was successful in fleeing Massachusetts, but not in out-distancing the law. That's because the Erie County district attorney appealed to the governor of New York for Appleyard's arrest on a fugitive from justice warrant, the warrant was approved, and Appleyard was summarily arrested in Buffalo.

Through an attorney, Appleyard fought the warrant, asserting that New York had no authority over him because he was a resident of Massachusetts. The Supreme Court heard the case on November 16, 1906, and affirmed the legality of the fugitive warrant on December 3 of the same year.

Since then the fugitive warrant has been occasionally tested by the courts, but has always been found to be an entirely legal form of criminal apprehension.

Function

The essential function of the fugitive warrant is cooperation between law enforcement agencies in one state, with their counterparts in another. When such a warrant is used properly, it sets up a situation where everyone but the criminal wins.

Law enforcement agencies apprehend more criminals because geography is no longer a boundary to arrest. People are more safe in their communities, even from out of state criminals. And, fugitive warrants can act as a deterrent to crime, letting criminals know that fleeing the state is not necessarily an easy way to escape the repercussions of their actions.

Real Life Examples

Fugitive from justice warrants have been used to apprehend all types of criminals, from tax evaders to drunk drivers who leave the scene of an accident to firearms violators and even murderers.

Scott Peterson, found guilty of murdering his wife, Lacey, and their unborn son was arrested on a fugitive from justice warrant. Sarah Jane Olson, aka Kathleen Solian, was convicted of the famous 1975 bank robbery with the Symbionese Liberation Army and was also arrested on a fugitive from justice warrant. Both at one time were listed on the FBI's famous Ten Most Wanted fugitives list.

The primary use of the fugitive warrant, however, is for those accused or convicted in much lower profile cases, both misdemeanors and felonies, but who have chosen to flee.

Safe Surrender Programs

In an effort to distinguish between dangerous criminals on the run and people with more innocuous infractions still on their records, some states have instituted Fugitive Safe Surrender Programs in urban areas. These innovative programs invite those with outstanding arrest warrants to surrender to law enforcement officers without the need for any use of force. Offenders are then seen by a judge for an immediate resolution of their case. Many simply pay a fine and go about their day.

For example, in Akron, Ohio a recent three-day Fugitive Safe Surrender Program organized by local churches, law enforcement, and the court system saw more than 1,000 fugitives turn themselves in. Most had old misdemeanor charges outstanding and their cases were resolved immediately by paying a fine.

Ohio pioneered this program with the help of the U.S. Marshal's Service, but there are similar programs offered sporadically in every major city in the country, including Detroit, Memphis, Phoenix, Cleveland and Washington D.C.

Misconceptions

Fugitive from justice warrants are not only enforced in recent cases, but have been used in cases decades old for add-on charges. For example, if someone on vacation outside their home state is arrested, as a matter of course officers will check to see if they have a criminal record and if any arrest warrants are outstanding. Old warrants decades old can come back to haunt in situations such as this.

Fugitive warrants can also show up on your credit rating, appear when a prospective landlord does a reference check, and turn off employers. Any friends or family members that know about your fugitive status and agree to let you stay with them for any extended period of time could be in trouble with the law for harboring a fugitive.

These are just a few of the reasons why it's always best to clear up any outstanding arrest warrants voluntarily, even if the warrant is only a bench warrant for a traffic violation.

About the Author

Mardi Link is a former police reporter, covering crime and law for five years. She has two true crime books, When Evil Came to Good Hart and Isadore's Secret (University of Michigan Press). Her articles appear in The Detroit Free Press, ForeWord, and TC Business News. She lives in northern Michigan.

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