Arrest Warrants

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

An arrest warrant is a legal document issued by a judge or a magistrate that authorizes law enforcement officers to arrest a person suspected of a crime (Fed. R. Crim. P. 4). Unlike a casual encounter with police or an arrest made during the commission of a crime, an arrest warrant is typically used when a crime has already been committed and a specific suspect has been identified.

The Process of Obtaining an Arrest Warrant

Before a judge can issue an arrest warrant, law enforcement must demonstrate probable cause. This is typically done through a written affidavit where the officer provides facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the suspect has committed a crime (Fed. R. Crim. P. 4).

If the judge agrees that probable cause exists, they will issue the arrest warrant. This warrant will typically include the name of the person to be arrested, the alleged offense, and the officer’s authority to apprehend the suspect. It’s important to note that an arrest warrant is not an indication of guilt; it merely initiates the legal process (Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 1980).

Arrest Warrants and Individual Rights

The requirement of an arrest warrant respects the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures by providing an independent review of the evidence before an arrest can occur (U.S. Constitution. Amend. IV). It is an essential mechanism to prevent arbitrary and unjustified arrests.

However, there are exceptions. In situations where there’s not enough time to obtain a warrant because of immediate danger or the risk of evidence being destroyed, officers can make a warrantless arrest if there is probable cause (United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411, 1976).


An arrest warrant serves as an important legal safeguard, ensuring that a neutral judge has reviewed and approved the basis for an arrest. While obtaining a warrant is a crucial step in many arrest situations, law enforcement may sometimes proceed without one when immediate action is necessary. Understanding arrest warrants enhances our comprehension of the checks and balances in the criminal justice process.


  • Fed. R. Crim. P. 4.
  • Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1980).
  • U.S. Constitution. Amend. IV.
  • United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411 (1976).
Modification History

File Created:  08/07/2018

Last Modified:  08/07/2018

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