Written by Lauren Cahn on 10/13/2020

What is a Bench Warrant (vs. an Arrest Warrant)?

If you want to understand a bench warrant, it’s important to know what an arrest warrant is. That’s because a bench warrant serves the same purpose as an arrest warrant. In fact, as we’ll see, a bench warrant is actually a type of arrest warrant.

What is an arrest warrant?

An arrest warrant is an order signed by a judge that permits a law enforcement officer to take a suspect into custody — usually to initiate a criminal case by filing criminal charges. To obtain one, a police officer must show there’s “probable cause” to believe a crime was committed and the suspect could have done it. 

Not all arrests require a warrant. For example, if a law enforcement officer witnesses an assault, it may not be necessary (or even a good idea) to take the time to get a warrant — especially if the suspect is trying to make a run for it. 

An arrest warrant isn’t needed when a police officer pulls you over in a routine traffic stop for a misdemeanor like speeding. Nor is it needed to arrest someone on, say, a DUI charge during a traffic stop. 

It’s just that the Supreme Court has made it clear that the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution requires law enforcement to be able to show probable cause in order to make an arrest. 

So an arrest warrant can help prosecutors in a trial if a criminal defense lawyer questions whether the police department’s law enforcement officers followed the proper procedures, as defined in criminal law. In such a case, the warrant establishes a presumption that these procedures were followed, at least with regard to probable cause. 

What is a bench warrant?  

Like other arrest warrants, a bench warrant allows a police officer to take someone into custody to answer criminal charges. However, in the case of the bench warrant, the criminal charges are for violation of the rules of the court.

In fact, a bench warrant doesn’t have to arise from a criminal case. Bench warrants can be issued in any kind of court case. When a judge issues a bench warrant against you, law enforcement is authorized to take you into custody. In other words, even though a bench warrant doesn’t have to arise in a criminal case, it can give rise to a criminal charge. 

The most common violations that lead to bench warrants include:

  • Failure to show up for a court date. Failure to show up for any scheduled court appearance can lead to a bench warrant. A judge can issue one for failing to appear for a traffic ticket or for any court hearing, including an arraignment, pretrial conference, trial, or sentencing.
  • Failure to obey a court order. Court orders come in all shapes and sizes, from neglecting to pay a fine in traffic court to ignoring a restraining order to failing to pay court-ordered child support.  

Ultimately, a judge issues a bench warrant to get you to appear in court. Once you’re there, the judge can either release you on your own recognizance with a warning or take you into custody. The decision depends on your criminal history and the court’s assessment of your flight risk.

If you don’t appear in court, the consequences can be serious. Contempt of court charges carry hefty penalties. In some cases, you could lose your driver’s license. In others, you could be held in custody pending a new court date. Although bail is often available, the bail amount may be significant.

What happens when a judge issues a bench warrant?

As soon as the judge signs the paperwork, law enforcement is notified. If you’re named in an outstanding bench warrant, you can be arrested at any time, including at your home or office, although most arrests are made during routine traffic stops. 

The good news is that, in most cases, you’ll receive a copy of the bench warrant notification in the mail and will have the opportunity to show up voluntarily. 

What to do if you might be subject to a bench warrant 

If you believe you may be subject to a bench warrant (e.g., if you think you’ve missed a court date or have failed to obey a court order), it’s best to seek legal advice from an experienced criminal defense attorney, preferably one from a reputable law firm with experience in dealing with bench warrants.

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