People in jail or prison may discover that a warrant for their arrest is outstanding from another county, state, or the federal government. Having a warrant while incarcerated can prevent your release or result in loss of privileges. Read on to learn how outstanding warrants affect pretrial detainees and inmates serving time.
Let's say someone in custody awaiting trial is charged in another case in another county, or a prison inmate finds out a neighboring state has filed criminal charges. What happens?
In either situation, the issuing jurisdiction (the court that issued the warrant) may demand that the prisoner be brought before it to answer for the warrant. Usually, the defendant is transported to the court, enters a plea, and is returned to the original jail or prison, either right away or after additional proceedings. The original jail or prison and the issuing jurisdiction work out the details of where the prisoner will stay pending the resolution of the case.
Inmates who are the subject of an arrest warrant should contact an attorney as soon as possible. This is especially true for people who are in custody (sitting in jail) awaiting trial or are about to enter a plea.
The issuing jurisdiction may place a hold on the defendant who's scheduled to be released with or without bail. If that's the case, the jail cannot release the defendant until the other jurisdiction takes custody of the defendant or cancels the hold.
Sometimes, a "deal" can be worked out with the jurisdiction that issued the warrant (assuming, of course, that the inmate wishes to plead to the charge).
For example, suppose someone is in jail on a burglary charge in Los Angeles County and discovers that a neighboring county, San Bernardino, has also issued a warrant for their arrest. The defense attorney and prosecutors in each county may work out a deal in which the defendant pleads to the LA case in exchange for the dismissal of the San Bernardino charges. The incentive for the prosecutors is that such a deal clears the case from the San Bernardino and LA courts, which are overloaded with cases. In exchange, the defendant avoids a second conviction.
Outstanding warrants for prisoners who are in state prison present different challenges.
Assuming the prison officials know of the warrant but the issuing jurisdiction has not acted on them, the warrant will block a prisoner's freedom at the end of the sentence. That is, after serving the sentence, the prisoner won't be released—instead, a "hold" will be placed and the prisoner will be taken to the jurisdiction that issued the warrant.
Problems can arise even before the prisoner's release date. Outstanding warrants that are known to prison officials may interfere with the inmate's ability to take advantage of certain prison programs and privileges. For example, work release programs, benefits for good behavior, and even parole may be out of reach. An inmate may want to clear these warrants in order to avoid these consequences (but see the section below for situations in which clearing a warrant may not be a wise idea).
Prisoners who intend to fight the charge may want to do so while they also serve their original sentence. If there's a conviction, the sentence can be tacked on to the prisoner's original sentence (a "consecutive sentence"), or it may be ordered to run at the same time (a "concurrent sentence"). An acquittal will mean that the prisoner will be returned to prison to finish serving the original sentence.
An attorney may be able to help the prisoner clear the warrant. Here are the steps that are usually followed:
These steps assume that the prisoner is willing to plead (or is fairly certain that the issuing jurisdiction will drop the charges once it learns that the defendant is already in state prison, particularly if the sentence is a long one).
However, in some situations, it may be to the inmate's advantage to leave the warrant alone and hope that the issuing prosecutors don't act on it. For example, suppose the warrant concerns an incident for which there is only one witness, who is elderly or seriously ill, or who is likely to move and become hard to locate. The inmate may choose to ignore the warrant, hoping that it will come to light, if at all, only at the end of the prisoner's sentence. By that time, the prosecution's ability to prosecute the case may be seriously compromised by the absence of the witness, who may have died or become impossible to locate.
As you can see, many tactical and practical considerations go into a decision on whether to bring a warrant to light and attempt to clear it or otherwise deal with it. Prisoners and non-lawyers are usually not in a position to know how the issuing jurisdiction is likely to respond to a demand for a speedy trial, nor are they likely to know how to bargain with the prosecuting attorney and reach a favorable plea deal. Only a local and experienced criminal defense attorney will know how and with whom to begin negotiations (or not).