What happens when a judge issues an arrest warrant, but the police never locate the person the judge wants to see? Does the warrant eventually expire? In most cases, the answer is no. There is no statute of limitations for outstanding arrest warrants, which means the warrant will not expire after a certain period like many may hope.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
There's no statute of limitations on warrants. You can be arrested on an outstanding arrest or bench warrant right up until the day you die.
What Is an Arrest Warrant?
An arrest warrant is an order from a judge that calls for someone to be taken into police custody until a court hearing. It's basically an order for the police to find, arrest and detain you. The court will issue an arrest warrant after law enforcement officials have conducted a criminal investigation and they, or a grand jury, have probable cause to believe that something illegal took place and that you were involved in the crime.
It's unlikely that you'll know about the arrest warrant until the police actually arrest you. That's deliberate, since prosecutors do not want you to flee while the police are investigating the crime.
What Is a Bench Warrant?
If there's a warrant out for your arrest, then it's much more likely to be a bench warrant than an arrest warrant. This type of warrant is issued when you fail to show up for a court hearing or fail to answer a subpoena. It's called a bench warrant because you never showed up at the judge's "bench" when you were supposed to.
Bench warrants are much wider-reaching than arrest warrants. You could have a bench warrant if you failed to appear in court on a scheduled hearing date; failed to appear in court after a citation by a police officer; failed to bring in papers requested by a judge; or failed to pay a fine. You may not know about the bench warrant until something official happens, like the DMV places a hold on your license or immigration authorities block a travel visa application because the outstanding warrant on your record has been flagged.
Like an arrest warrant, a bench warrant authorizes law enforcement officials to detain you and bring you into custody. If you're arrested on a bench warrant, you'll sit in jail until called to appear before a judge.
Is There a Statute of Limitations on Warrants?
There are no statute of limitations on bench warrants or arrest warrants. They are not automatically deleted after a specific time period and they do not fall away just because the police are not able to find you. The warrant remains "live" until the day you die, unless a judge withdraws it for some other reason. If there's an outstanding warrant against you, you are basically a fugitive until you respond to the warrant in an appropriate manner.
It's rarely wise to ignore a warrant. If you're alerted to an outstanding warrant, for example by the DMV holding your license, the best option may be to consult an attorney to figure out your next steps.
The Crime May Be Time-Barred
While warrants themselves do not expire, the crime you're accused of may be time-barred. States have rules about how long prosecutors have to begin criminal proceedings. The time period varies depending on the nature and severity of the crime, but if the deadline, or statute of limitations, has passed without proceedings being brought, then you generally cannot be prosecuted for that crime. You can still be arrested on the outstanding warrant, but the judge is likely to throw the matter out of court.
The other thing to consider is that law enforcement officials have to make a reasonable effort to enforce the warrant in a timely manner. If they make little or no effort to find you, then the court may decide to throw out the case. If you learn about an outstanding warrant, or if you are arrested, then the best advice is to contact an attorney to figure out your next move.
- Police image by Zeno from Fotolia.com