Arrest Warrants: Process & Requirement

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

Arrest warrants are legal documents usually issued by a judge. This lesson will review the process and requirements that need to be followed and satisfied in order for a law enforcement officer to secure an arrest warrant.

Home Invasions

Officer Smith is investigating a series of home invasions that have terrorized local residents for months. Three men are believed to be responsible for these acts, and two of the five victims were able to get a look at the suspects up close. Based upon their description of the suspects, a composite drawing is made and shown on the evening news. Officer Smith sets up a special tip line, and the calls start coming in. One caller believes one of the men is her boyfriend. Upon investigating further, Officer Smith finds out that the boyfriend has a sketchy past, which includes two prior arrests for burglary. One of the victims is also able to identify the boyfriend in a photo line up as one of the invaders. Officer Smith can now move forward and obtain a warrant for the suspect's arrest.

The Process for Obtaining an Arrest Warrant

An arrest warrant is a legal document usually issued by a judge or other legal authority, that allows law enforcement officers to lawfully detain a person who is suspected of being involved in a criminal matter. However, an arrest warrant can not solely be obtained on the hunch of a police officer alone. The process for obtaining an arrest warrant is guided by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment requires that no warrant be issued unless it can be demonstrated that there is probable cause to believe that someone has committed a crime. The amendment is designed to protect people against unlawful invasions of their privacy. However, the law has been rather vague on what exactly constitutes probable cause. Probable cause is much less than the reasonable doubt standard required to adjudicate someone as being guilty in a criminal proceeding.

In general, probable cause means that a law enforcement officer has good reason to believe that someone is involved in a crime. Going back to our opening example, one can say that Officer Smith had probable cause to obtain an arrest warrant based upon the composite sketch identification, and the fact that an eyewitness was able to identify the suspect in a photo line up. This does not, however, mean that there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that this is the suspect that committed the crime. Rather, that will be up to the prosecutor to establish at trial.

Arrest Warrant Requirements

It is important to note that most arrests occur without officers having to secure an arrest warrant because they occur in view of police officers. However, when a crime occurs outside of the view of an officer, an arrest warrant does need to be secured. In order for an arrest warrant to be valid, it has to meet several requirements. These include:

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