There are three main ways you can find out if you are the subject of an outstanding warrant. These are by:
- searching the sheriff’s website or the court’s website for the county that might have issued the warrant,
- searching the Superior Court of California’s website, or
- running a criminal background check.
California law says that there are two types of warrants that give law enforcement the authority to arrest you.
- Arrest warrants, which are typically issued when police officers or a district attorney suspects that you have committed a crime.
- Bench warrants, which are issued if you are in “contempt of court.” This might occur if you:
- failed to appear for a court date or court proceeding,
- failed to pay a fine, and/or
- failed to obey any other court order.
The police do not notify you when a warrant is issued for your arrest. In many cases, people have no idea they have a warrant until they are being arrested.
If you learn you are the subject of a warrant, it is critical to contact a California criminal defense attorney.
How can I find out if I have an active warrant in California?
To find out if you have an active warrant in California, you can either:
- Search your name on the appropriate County Sheriff’s website or Superior Court website. For example, in Orange County, you can search the Orange County Sheriff’s Department website.
- Run a search on the private CaliforniaArrests.org website.
- Order your criminal history record from the California AG’s website, which requires you to submit fingerprints and a $25 fee.
- Pay a third party service to perform a background check.
- Have us contact the local police department. Do not contact them yourself: If you have a warrant, your call could prompt them to search for you.
Note that once a judge issues a warrant, a clerk of the court enters it into the applicable court or law enforcement website. These are accessible via the United States Department of Justice, DOJ’s website. This means any police officer in the nation can access this information and determine if there is an active warrant out on you.
What is the difference between an arrest warrant and a bench warrant?
Arrest warrants are issued when police suspect you committed a crime, and they typically mark the beginning of a criminal case. Bench warrants are issued when you violate a court order (such as missing a hearing or failing to pay a fine), and they can be issued anytime during a case. Both types of warrants authorize police to search for you and arrest you.
A California arrest warrant authorizes law enforcement officers to arrest and detain you if they suspect you committed a crime outside of an officer’s presence.1 Judges or magistrates issue arrest warrants by order of the court based on:
- evidence presented to them by a peace officer and/or a District Attorney, or
- following a grand jury indictment.2
In order to be valid in a California court, an arrest warrant must include:
- your name,
- the criminal charges which you are accused of committing based on probable cause,
- the time and date of issuance,
- the city or county of issuance,
- the signature and title of the judge, and
- the name of the court.
Felony warrants can be executed at any time, while misdemeanor warrants must be executed between 6 AM and 10 PM unless either:
- the judge orders otherwise;
- the arrest occurs in public; or
- you are currently in custody.3
Arrest warrants remain active until you are arrested or the court decides to withdraw the warrant (for example, if exonerating evidence comes to light). Some warrants may expire if the statute of limitations for the underlying offense passes.
Once your arrest warrant is recalled, you have the right to a speedy trial. Though depending on your case, your attorney may advise you to waive this right as they try to negotiate a favorable resolution with the prosecutors.
Child support arrest warrants
Being late on child support payments is grounds for a warrant.
If the child’s custodial parent files a civil contempt of court due to your alleged nonpayment – and you (the “payor” or “obligor”) are a no-show at the court hearing – the court can issue a civil warrant (a.k.a. capias). You could then face up to a year in jail and/or a fine plus restitution for arrears.
If you owe a substantial amount in arrearages, the court can instead issue a criminal warrant. Prosecutors could press for more than a year in jail and/or fines plus payment of the back child support.
Unlike an arrest warrant, a bench warrant (a.k.a. body attachment) is not issued based on suspected criminal activity. A bench warrant is most typically issued if you:
- failed to appear for court or a progress report,
- failed to pay a fine,
- failed to obey any other court order,
- failed to pay a traffic citation/ticket,
- failed to pay alimony or child support,
- failed to appear on a subpoena, and/or
- violated probation
Note that police should not use deadly weapons to execute a warrant unless necessary. Also note a bench warrant generally does not expire. It will remain in effect until:
- recalled by the judge, or
- you appear in court.
Therefore, bench warrants can remain active indefinitely, and it does not matter how long ago it was issued or where in the world you are currently located.
The most common bench warrants are FTA (failure to appear) warrants. If the court believes you missed court intentionally, you could face criminal charges and a driver’s license suspension. (“Willful failure to appear” is not appearing in court within 14 days of the assigned hearing date.)
Violating a written promise to appear is typically a misdemeanor carrying up to six months in jail. If you are released on bail on a misdemeanor case, failing to appear at trial is also a misdemeanor carrying up to six months in jail. Though if you are released on bail on a felony case and fail to appear at trial, you can face either
- a misdemeanor charge carrying up to one year in jail or
- a felony charge carrying up to three years in prison.
Failure to Pay warrants
Another common bench warrant is the Failure to Pay warrant when you allegedly fail to pay a court fine by the deadline. Willful failure to pay can be a misdemeanor or infraction carrying a $300 civil assessment, a 30-day license suspension, and/or probation. (If you are destitute, the court should not penalize you.)4
What are search warrants?
A search warrant is a third type of warrant in California. It does not give the police authority to arrest you. Rather, the warrant is a writ that allows the police to search:
- a person,
- a residence,
- a vehicle,
- a place of business, or
- any other specified area suspected of containing evidence of illegal activity.
Warrants have to outline the locations and personal property to be searched with reasonable particularity, and they must spell out the factual basis for the search.
Search warrants are usually executed right away and remain valid for a 10 day period. A search warrant may only be executed between 7 AM and 10 PM unless the court finds good cause to do it at any time of the day. If the search warrant expires, the judge can reissue it if there is still probable cause that a search/seizure is reasonable under the circumstances.5
Grounds for search warrants
There are many potential grounds for search warrants in California, including that the property being sought:
- was stolen, such as merchandise from a store,
- was used to commit a crime, such as firearms, and/or
- is evidence of a crime you allegedly committed, such as child pornography, drugs, or embezzled cash.
There are also many grounds that make search warrants invalid and therefore unenforceable under the Fourth Amendment. These include:
- the police’s affidavit in support of the search warrant is not based on probable cause
- the search warrant fails to describe in particularity the locations or things to be search
Even if the search warrant is facially valid, police sometimes break the law by seizing property not listed in the warrant without a legal justification for doing so. Whenever the police may have conducted an unlawful search and seizure, you can ask the court to suppress all the evidence that the police unlawfully found.
Note that there are “exceptions” that permit courts to consider evidence found outside the bounds of a valid warrant. Some of these include:
- the police acted in good faith and genuinely believed there was a warrant even though judicial error kept it from being issued
- there were exigent circumstances, such as the police wanting to avoid the destruction of evidence or the escape of a suspect
- the evidence was in “plain view” of the police
A no-knock search warrant permits police to enter property without having to knock, ring the doorbell, or announce themselves. Judges usually issue no-knock warrants if the police believe that announcing themselves would cause the occupants to:
- destroy evidence;
- flee; and/or
- arm themselves and/or endanger others.
What should I do if I have an active warrant?
If you discover you are named in a warrant, it is critical to immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.
If you have an arrest warrant, your attorney may even be able to take you directly to court and get the arrest warrant cleared without you having to spend time in jail. This way, you are spared the embarrassing scene of being arrested at home or at work.
With regards to a bench warrant, it typically remains in effect until you appear in court and the judge agrees to quash it. You can have your attorney appear in court on your behalf, provided that:
- you failed to appear for a court appearance, or
- you failed to make a payment in connection with a misdemeanor offense.
Note that if you have an outstanding warrant, it is best to lay low until your attorney can get it recalled or quashed. If you are pulled over for a traffic violation, the officer can arrest you once they run your name and see you have an active warrant.
Also note that having a warrant can be a barrier if you are on the immigration track, looking for a job or housing, or need to renew your license at the DMV. The sooner you get the warrant handled, the better.
Can I still get a job if I have a warrant?
In general, California employers (who have five or more employees) may not run a third-party background check or ask you about your criminal history until they make a conditional offer of employment and you provide written consent.
At that point, the employer can make an individualized assessment to determine whether having an active warrant is disqualifying.6
- See California Penal Code sections 813–816, 836 and 1427 PC.
- See same.
- California Penal Code 815; sometimes the warrant and affidavit are sealed pursuant to People v.Hobbs (California Supreme Court, 1994) 7 Cal.4th 948. California Penal Code 840.
- See California Penal Code sections 978.5–981 PC. Also see California Penal Code sections 853.7, 1320, and 1320.5. California Vehicle Code 13365.
- Under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (and as Article 1 of the California Constitution), law enforcement may not conduct unreasonable searches and seizures. Unless there is a “warrant exception”, police officers in the United States require an arrest warrant in order to make an arrest or to execute a search warrant to conduct a search pursuant to a criminal investigation. The warrant affidavit by the police officer (affiant) is done under penalty of perjury. Officers must execute warrants in good faith, and there must be no tampering with the evidence. (Also see Evidence Code 1560 re. business records and related paraphernalia and PC 1524.3 re. service providers.); also see People of the State of California v. Escamilla, (California Court of Appeals, 1976) 65 Cal.App.3d 558, 562. California Penal Code 1524–1542.5. PC 1525; PC 1534; PC 1538.5.
- Fair Employment and Housing Act 12952. FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act).