Do Warrants Eventually Expire If Police Do Not Arrest You?

Our office often receives phone calls from folks aware that “a warrant was issued” and they are anxious to know what do to next, as they fear police may execute it on them at any time.  Our first reaction to such a question is to clarify what type of warrant (arrest, bench, search or complaint) is involved and second, how they became aware of the warrant.  

We also verify that the caller is not describing a summons, which a prosecutor may send by mail to someone, ordering that person to appear in court on a certain date (and if the person does not appear, a bench warrant may issue).  A summons to appear is most commonly issued when the alleged crime does not involve violence or firearms such as a traffic violation, although a summons may still be issued when the crime at issues is a felony.  

The next question that often is asked is whether a warrant expires at some point.  The answer to this is no.  However, if one is arrested on a warrant issued many years ago, the arrested person can ask the judge to dismiss the case based on his being deprived of his Sixth Amendment Constitutional Right to a speedy trial.  The motion is commonly called a “Serna Motion” (People v. Serna (1985) 40 Cal.3d 239).  

While asserting one’s constitutional rights to a speedy trial may seem like a sure winner, a Serna Motion is never a “slam dunk.”  First of all, the right to a speedy trial only attaches when the crime at issue involves possible confinement in jail or prison.  For example, an infraction does not involve jail time.  Second, for one to win on a Serna Motion, one cannot be a fugitive, i.e. flee the state when the person knew a warrant had issued.  Third, the motion must allege the prosecution failed to use reasonable diligence to find defendant, which means the prosecution, in opposing the motion, must demonstrate its efforts to find defendant.  

When the warrant was issued fairly recently, it is good to know a little about the different types of warrants.  An arrest warrant most often arises after a judge is persuaded by a prosecutor that a crime was committed and you are the perpetrator.  The judge then issues an arrest warrant.  An arrest warrant may also be issued after a grand jury indicts you.  This process happens far less often, but it certainly can

The perpetrator’s address is not required on an arrest warrant.  This allows the police to arrest you either at home or work.  Once the warrant is issued, police must execute it “without delay” to make the arrest.  Malone v. Carey (1936) 17 Cal.App.2d 505.  Felony arrest warrants can be executed at any hour.  Misdemeanor warrants, however, can only be executed between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., except when the arrest is made in a public place or the judge issuing the warrant states other time limits (if any) on the warrant.

A bench warrant is a second common type of warrant.  It is issued when defendant fails to appear in court, often when a ticket was issued with a promise to appear signed by defendant or when a summons was mailed to defendant and defendant did not appear in court. 

When dealing with a bench warrant in a misdemeanor case, we suggest the client hire an attorney to appear for the client.  This way the client can remain at home, at work or at school and avoid the stress of being in court.  A judge must allow an attorney to appear under Penal Code § 977(a) on a misdemeanor for such a recall. Bracher v Sup Ct. 205 Cal App 4th 1445.  The case will then proceed with an arraignment or a new court appearance, which the attorney can appear in court for the client, too.  Besides the exceptions listed in 977, an attorney must be permitted to appear for his client in a misdemeanor case absent specific factual findings by the court that the defendant’s presence is necessary.  Olney v. Municipal Court 133 Cal.App.3d 455; Bracher v. Superior Court, 205 Cal.App.4th 1445.

A search warrant is distinguishable from an arrest or bench warrant in that a search warrant is issued to permit police to search a location or vehicle, but not for an arrest of a person.

When an arrest warrant or bench warrant is issued and the subject is aware of its pendency, it is a good idea to speak with a lawyer about contacting a bail bond company and tendering oneself to the police or to a court.  Bail, however, is not allowed in certain situation, situations such as capital crimes, serious sex crimes and probation and parole violations.

For more information about issue relating to warrants, appearing in court and bail bonds, click on the following articles:
  1. What Is Bail and Can it Be Reduced?
  2. How Is Bail Set?
  3. When Can a Judge Attach Conditions to Bail or Deny Bail?
  4. What Should I Wear and Bring to Court?
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