Arrest warrants may be designated as public records, but finding and obtaining a copy of one can be a difficult process. Most local and state jurisdictions have their own laws, regulations and procedures that you'll have to navigate, and in many cases, exemptions to public record laws can prevent their disclosure. However, by approaching the task systematically, you might be able to obtain a copy of the warrant you're looking for, or at least find out if such a warrant exists. In most cases, however, you'll need to contact the local law enforcement agency or visit the courthouse personally.
How and When Warrants Are Created
Warrants are not always required prior to an arrest. In many cases, an exception to the constitutional warrant requirement applies so the officials involved in the investigation don't need to apply for an arrest warrant from a judge.
But in most cases, a judge reviews an application for an arrest warrant requested by the investigating officers. This request contains a thorough description of why the officers believe that probable cause exists for the arrest. In other cases, a judge may issue what is called a bench warrant, which authorizes law enforcement to arrest an individual who fails to appear in court as required.
State and Federal Freedom of Information Laws
The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows for public access to arrest warrant records for national agencies, such as the FBI. All fifty states also have robust freedom of information or public records laws that apply to state police agencies and local law enforcement offices.
Each set of laws sets out specific requirements for public records requests. Those procedures can range from filing a paper form requesting information to emailing the records custodian at the appropriate agency. An in-person review of original documents may be scheduled, but in many instances, the agency will provide you with a copy of the warrant.
Legal Exceptions to Public Disclosure Laws
Most states, as well as the federal government, exempt certain documents from public disclosure and access. One common exception concerns documents related to ongoing law enforcement investigations. For example, New York exempts documents that are compiled for law enforcement purposes when the disclosure of those documents would:
- Impede the investigation or any court proceedings.
- Interfere with an accused person's right to due process and a fair trial.
- Disclose the identity of a confidential informant or any confidential information.
- Disclose specific, nonroutine criminal investigative procedures or techniques.
In some cases, courts have ruled (and statutes may specifically provide) that exemptions to disclosure apply only to ongoing investigations. As a result, arrest warrants in a closed case should not be exempt under such statutes. Some jurisdictions may also exclude from disclosure any documents that reveal the identity of juvenile offenders or witnesses.
If your request to review a warrant is denied on the grounds that it meets one or more exemptions to the freedom of information laws, ask the agency to produce a redacted version in which certain information is blacked out. Additional costs may be assessed for the time it takes an officer to review, redact and photocopy the warrant.
Requesting a Copy of an Arrest Warrant
In some cases, local law enforcement agencies make some public warrant information available online. For example, Louisiana's St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office publishes an exhaustive list of all open arrest warrants as a PDF that you can view online or download. You can then use a digital search function to look for specific names. Other agencies may provide similar information in a searchable database format.
If the underlying warrant itself is not available online, you can use these search and access methods to gather additional data to include in your FOIA request, which should make it easier for officials to locate the warrant you want.
Contact Law Enforcement Agencies
If online sources don't produce results, you'll need to contact directly the law enforcement agency that you believe would have executed the arrest warrant – the police or sheriff's department that made the arrest. To request a copy of any warrant, provide identifying information about the person in question, including full legal name, last known addresses and any specific information about the underlying alleged offense, such as date, location and what the charge was.
If that approach is unsuccessful, there are additional steps you can take. Because judges must issue the final approval of arrest warrants, visit the local courthouse in the appropriate jurisdiction, go to the clerk of court's office and ask for the criminal division.