In California, it's not uncommon for someone to have an outstanding warrant for arrest on a misdemeanor charge and never realize it—only possibly finding out about it months or even years later.
Perhaps it shows up on a criminal background check or happens when you're pulled over for a routine traffic stop. Whatever the case, it presents the question: do warrants for California crimes ever expire?
An arrest warrant in California for a misdemeanor will remain active until the warrant is cleared, the suspect is arrested, or they die. Simply put, warrants never expire.
However, suppose the criminal statute of limitations (SOL) has expired. In that case, you might be able to get the case dismissed for passing the time limitations. In California, the SOL for misdemeanors is generally one year from the time of the offense.
Thus, it's essential to understand that arrest and bench warrants generally do not expire. Once issued, law enforcement can execute a warrant when you are pulled over at a traffic stop or another encounter.
This could occur soon after the warrant was issued or months or years afterward. Even misdemeanor warrants stay active indefinitely. While active, the outstanding warrant typically appears on a background check. Sometimes, it might lead to a driver's license suspension by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
Misdemeanor warrants will not typically result in law enforcement officers visiting the neighborhood to look for you. Instead, police will wait until they encounter you, such as at a routine traffic stop. While there could be a delay in executing the warrant, the offense leading to the warrant is still subjected to the criminal statute of limitations.
What is an Arrest Warrant?
An arrest warrant is a court order that authorizes law enforcement to arrest an individual suspected of committing a crime. In California, an arrest warrant can only be issued if there is probable cause to believe that the person named in the warrant has committed a crime.
The warrant remains in full effect until the person is arrested (or dies), the warrant is cleared, or the court cancels it. This is true for both misdemeanor and felony charges.
This means that, in theory, an arrest warrant could remain outstanding indefinitely, haunting you for years until you either turn yourself in or have an attorney petition to cancel it. Arrest warrants are issued after:
- Police have shown a judge that there is probable cause to believe that you committed a crime or
- A grand jury has issued an indictment.
In contrast, bench warrants are typically issued if you violate a court order. Some common examples include the following:
- Failing to appear for a mandatory court date,
- Failing to complete community service hours,
- Allegedly committing a probation violation.
Does an Arrest Warrant Show Up in Criminal Background Checks?
The short answer is that it can. As an official judicial record, an arrest warrant is also a matter of public record, so in theory, it can be visible by any relevant search of court records, including certain types of background checks.
In California, whether an arrest warrant appears in a criminal background check depends on the type of check conducted. Standard criminal background checks, typically employed by landlords or employers, often do not reveal outstanding warrants, including open or bench warrants.
However, more comprehensive checks, like those carried out by law enforcement agencies or for specific professional licenses, may disclose such warrants. Even bench warrants, which are court-issued orders typically for failure to appear, can appear on most criminal background checks.
What About the Criminal Statute of Limitations?
In California, the statute of limitations for misdemeanors is generally one year. This means that prosecutors have one year to file charges from the date the crime was allegedly committed. If charges are not filed within this timeframe, the accused cannot be prosecuted for that misdemeanor.
Under California law, prosecutors can initiate a case by the following acts:
- File an indictment, criminal information, or criminal complaint,
- Bring in the defendant an arraignment hearing, or
- Issue a bench warrant or an arrest warrant.
However, an arrest warrant may be issued before official charges are filed—and this is often the case because misdemeanor charges are usually filed after the defendant is arrested. The misdemeanor warrant, however, does not automatically expire after one year; it can remain active even after the statute of limitations has passed with no charges filed.
Defense attorneys often use the statute of limitations to have charges dismissed and warrants canceled. Suppose you discover an outstanding warrant against you after the statute of limitations has expired. In that case, a defense attorney can argue that any charges filed after this period are invalid. If successful, the court may dismiss the charges and cancel the warrant.
However, whether this argument is successful can depend on various factors. For example, prosecutors may argue that the statute of limitations should be tolled or paused due to certain circumstances, such as the following:
- Defendant fleeing the state or
- Hiding to avoid prosecution.
If the court agrees with the prosecutor's argument, the warrant may remain in effect even after the statute of limitations has expired.
What About Speedy Trial Rights?
The Sixth Amendment guarantees a right to a speedy trial. Suppose police fail to execute an arrest warrant in a reasonable amount of time after the charging document.
In that case, it might violate this constitutional right. In California, this means you could file a Serna Motion to try to get the case dismissed. When police do not execute an arrest warrant soon after the alleged crime, it might impact the credibility of the evidence, such as the following:
- Lost or erased surveillance footage,
- Witnesses moving away,
- Fading memories of the incident
These factors can significantly undermine your defense strategy or make you more likely to face a wrongful conviction.
What Should You Do if You Have an Outstanding Misdemeanor Warrant?
If you discover an outstanding warrant for a misdemeanor charge in California, it's essential to act immediately. Ignoring the warrant will only prolong the issue, disrupt your life, and potentially result in more severe consequences.
The best course of action is to contact a California criminal defense attorney who can help guide you through the process and potentially have the warrant canceled.
In some cases, an attorney may be able to negotiate with the court to have you appear voluntarily rather than being arrested for the warrant. In other cases (for example, if you were never charged and the statute of limitations is expired), your attorney can petition the court to cancel the warrant as it is moot.
Contact our law firm for more information and to discuss legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.