What Is the Difference in a Warrant & a Bench Warrant?

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A bench warrant is issued by a judge, most commonly when a person fails to appear for a scheduled court appearance. In contrast, an arrest warrant is usually initiated by a police officer and issued when there is probable cause that the named person has committed a specific crime.

Most people understand that an arrest warrant gives public officers the authorization to arrest and detain a person, but what about a bench warrant? Does that mean something different?

A bench warrant is actually a type of arrest warrant, so while the process for issuing a general arrest warrant and a bench warrant are different, the impact is the same. The main difference between the two is that a bench warrant is initiated by a judge, generally because a person fails to appear for a court appearance, and an arrest warrant is usually initiated by a police officer and then issued by a judge when there is probable cause that a specific crime has been committed.

What Is an Arrest Warrant?

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unlawful searches and seizures of their person and possessions. This amendment sets requirements for warrants, stating that a warrant will be issued only with probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation. It must describe in detail the place to be searched or the place or person to be seized. An arrest warrant must therefore be issued by a judge or magistrate only after an officer has provided information that would allow a reasonable person to believe that the named person has committed a crime. An arrest warrant authorizes the police to take the named person into custody and it also serves as notice of the charges against that person.

Types of Charges That Might Lead to an Arrest Warrant

In most jurisdictions, an arrest warrant is necessary before an arrest is made for any misdemeanor crime that isn't committed within direct view of a police officer. However, a warrant is not generally required to arrest a person suspected of a felony. Every state categorizes crimes differently, but acts classified as federal misdemeanors include simple assault, failure to pay child support and bribery.

What Is a Bench Warrant?

A bench warrant is an arrest warrant that is issued by a judge or court when a person fails to comply with a court order, prompting the court to hold the person in contempt. The bench warrant authorizes police officers to arrest the named person and bring him before the judge. The court might set bail or decide that the named individual should be held without bail until he appears before the court.

Incidents That Might Lead to a Bench Warrant

The most common reason for issuance of a bench warrant is failure to appear in court for a scheduled hearing. For example, if you're given a citation for underage drinking and the ticket includes a court date, but you fail to appear in court on the day ordered, the judge might issue a bench warrant for your arrest.

In some cases, a court might issue a bench warrant for people who don't report for jury duty. Bench warrants can also be issued for failure to comply with a court order, such as an order for payment of child support.

Other Types of Warrants

The most common type of warrant is a search warrant. It's issued by a judge when there's probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime is present at a private building or residence. In most cases, the warrant gives law enforcement personnel the right to search those premises, an act the Fourth Amendment prohibits without a warrant. Similar to arrest warrants, a search warrant should be issued only if a judge is presented with sufficient, sworn information that evidence of a specific crime exists.

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About the Author

Sally Brooks is a writer living in New York City with her chunky toddler and patient husband. She graduated magna cum laude from the University Cincinnati College of Law and her work has been featured in Jurist and the Temple Political and Civil Rights Law Review.