Arrest Warrants in Colorado

An arrest warrant in Colorado gives the police the authority to arrest someone. Police have to go to a judge, magistrate, or grand jury with evidence that a crime has been committed. If police convince them that there is probable cause to make the arrest, police will get the warrant. Once they have the arrest warrant, police can execute it by making the arrest according to the terms of the warrant.

Arrest warrants should not be confused with other types of warrants:

  • Search warrants authorize police to search for evidence, but not arrest people, and
  • Bench warrants tell police to arrest someone for violating a court order rather than a crime. Bench warrants are instigated by the court, while arrest warrants begin with the police.

In this article, Colorado criminal defense lawyers discuss the following aspects of an arrest warrant:

colorado arrest warrant

1. What is an arrest warrant in Colorado?

In Colorado, an arrest warrant is a document that allows police to make an arrest. The warrant will likely include the following details:

  • Who is supposed to be arrested,
  • The crime that person is accused of committing,
  • When and where the warrant was issued,
  • The judge who approved the arrest warrant, including their signature,
  • Limits on how the arrest can be made that often specify where and when the warrant can be executed, and
  • Details on the amount of bail that will have to be posted.

Ideally, arrest warrants are supposed to identify the person to be arrested by their name. However, when the name is not known, the warrant has to make a clear description of the suspect. This description has to be clear enough for police to be reasonably certain they are arresting the right person.

When police have an arrest warrant, they can execute it by making the arrest under its terms.

2. How do police get an arrest warrant?

In order to get an arrest warrant, police need to show a neutral and detached magistrate that there is probable cause for the arrest. The affidavit for an arrest warrant has to be:

  • In writing, and
  • Sworn to, under oath, by the requesting officers.

These requirements come from both the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution1 and Article II, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution.2

2.1. What is a neutral and detached magistrate?

Police have to show probable cause to a neutral and detached magistrate.3

In Colorado, this has to be someone in the judiciary, rather than a law enforcement officer.4 It does not necessarily have to be a judge, though. Other court workers can issue an arrest warrant, including:

  • Judges,
  • Magistrates,
  • Supervised court clerks who are able to make probable cause judgments.5

Even judges, though, can lose their detachment from a case if they are involved in the investigation or have an interest in it.6

2.2. What is probable cause?

Police have to show there is probable cause that a crime has happened.

The exact definition of probable cause is notoriously vague. What is clear, though, is that police have to show a crime likely happened. It is not proof that the crime occurred, though. It only means that there is a reasonable basis to believe that a crime happened.

Example: Police ask a judge for a warrant to arrest someone who might have committed a robbery. The judge denies the request because that is not probable cause.

Police have to support their claim with concrete evidence that is particular to the current case. That evidence has to be enough for the judge to make a probable cause judgment. It cannot be a general accusation that someone committed a crime. The evidence can include:

  • Testimony given by a witness to a crime,
  • Anonymous tips from members of the public,
  • Results of a long investigation, and
  • Statements given by law enforcement about their interactions with a suspect.

Example: A sheriff's affidavit for an arrest warrant says only, “I solemnly swear that Jack broke into a building.” The affidavit is insufficient for an arrest warrant.7

2.3. Arrest warrants for felonies can come from grand juries in Colorado

In some cases, prosecutors choose to go through a grand jury to obtain an arrest warrant. This does not happen very often, though, and can only happen in felony cases.

Should they choose this path, law enforcement will have to show probable cause to the grand jury rather than a judge or magistrate. The grand jury consists of either 12 or 23 people. A prosecutor will present evidence that an arrest should be made and ask for a warrant. If the grand jury agrees that there is probable cause, they will return an indictment. The prosecutor then brings the indictment to a judge, who can issue the arrest warrant.

police searching for suspect

3. How do police execute an arrest warrant in Colorado?

Police execute an arrest warrant by finding the person listed on the warrant and physically arresting them.

The person being arrested is brought to the police station, where they are held until arraignment. There are only a few days between the arrest and the arraignment.

At the arraignment, the person who was arrested will be told what criminal charges they are facing.

Many arrest warrants have specific instructions about where and when the arrest can be executed. These instructions are often made to keep others safe during the arrest. Police carry out those instructions based on the type of crime and the suspect's criminal history.

Police often stumble on someone who has a warrant out for their arrest. Any time a police officer asks for someone's identification, they run the information through the database of arrest warrants. If there is a “hit,” police execute the warrant and make an arrest.

3.1. How long do arrest warrants stay active?

Police can execute an arrest warrant at any time after it has been issued. Arrest warrants do not expire, so it can be months or even years before the arrest is made.

This often means suspects get arrested on a warrant that is several years old. They may have even forgotten about the crime they are being accused of committing.

3.2. Can a Colorado arrest warrant be executed in another state?

An arrest warrant that was issued in Colorado can be executed in another state. Similarly, arrest warrants from other states can be executed in Colorado.

The database of outstanding arrest warrants is a national one. Police in every state share their arrest warrant information on this database so police in other states can see it. As a result, people can be arrested in one state for a crime that allegedly happened in another state. If this happens, they can be extradited to the state where the crime allegedly occurred.

4. When can police arrest someone without a warrant?

Despite the fact that police are supposed to get a warrant to make an arrest, a huge portion of the arrests made in Colorado are done without one. This is because there are so many exceptions to the arrest warrant requirement. These exceptions allow an arrest without an arrest warrant in lots of circumstances, including:

  • A misdemeanor was committed in the presence of a police officer,8
  • A police officer has probable cause to believe the suspect committed a felony, and the arrest would happen in a public place,9
  • A police officer has probable cause to believe a crime – no matter how minor – is occurring or has occurred,10 and
  • There are exigent circumstances, an emergency, or evidence would be destroyed, even if the arrest happens inside a suspect's house.11

5. Can arrest warrants be challenged?

The evidence obtained after executing an invalid arrest warrant can be excluded from trial.

Proving that the arrest warrant was an invalid one requires showing that:

  • The magistrate was not neutral or was not detached from the investigation,
  • The affidavit that requested the arrest warrant did not prove there was probable cause for the arrest,
  • Facts in the affidavit were made up or were lies, or
  • The affidavit does not provide specific and concrete facts.

An invalid arrest warrant violates your rights when it is executed. This taints the evidence that it obtains. Any tainted evidence can be kept out of your trial with a motion to suppress. Without the evidence, law enforcement may not be able to prove you committed a crime.

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Legal References:

  1. “…no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

  2. “…no warrant to search any place or seize any person or things shall issue without describing the place to be searched, or the person or thing to be seized, as near as may be, nor without probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation reduced to writing.”

  3. Giordenello v. U.S., 357 U.S. 480 (1958), People v. Brethauer, 482 P.2d 369 (1971).

  4. People v. Moreno, 176 Colo. 488 (1971).

  5. Shadwick v. City of Tampa, 407 U.S. 345 (1972).

  6. People v. Trujillo, 712 P.2d 1079 (Colo. App. 1985); Shadwick v. City of Tampa, 407 U.S. 345 (1972); and Lo-Ji Sales, Inc. v. New York, 442 U.S. 319 (1979).

  7. Whiteley v. Warden, Wyoming State Penitentiary, 401 U.S. 560 (1971).

  8. People v. Triantos, 55 P.3d 131 (2002).

  9. U.S. v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411 (1976) and People v. Hoinville, 553 P.2d 777 (1976).

  10. Devenpeck v. Alford, 543 U.S. 146 (2004); Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318 (2001); and U.S. v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973).

  11. McCall v. People, 623 P.2d 397 (1981); People v. Moreno, 176 Colo. 488 (1971); and Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1980).

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