What is the difference between a warrant for arrest & a bench warrant in NJ?

Being arrested—or discovering that there's an active warrant for your arrest—in New Jersey can be a frightening experience. Learn the differences between an arrest and bench warrant, and how a defense attorney can help.

Being arrested—or discovering that there's an active warrant for your arrest—in New Jersey can be a frightening experience. And in many cases, you may not even know you have a warrant for arrest NJ until you encounter the police and are taken to jail. 

If you or someone you know has a warrant, it's essential to know what this means and what to do next. 

Below, we'll explain what an arrest warrant is, what a bench warrant is, and how a New Jersey criminal defense lawyer at our firm can help you handle both.

What is an arrest warrant in New Jersey?

During the course of investigating a crime, police will identify suspects. They'll then present a probable cause affidavit to the district attorney, who will determine whether criminal charges are warranted against the person or people named in the affidavit. If the district attorney determines that charges are supported, they'll then present these charges to a judge or a grand jury.

  • If charges are presented to a grand jury, the jury will vote whether to issue an indictment against the suspect. Once an indictment is issued, police are empowered to find and arrest the suspect. 
  • If charges are presented to a judge, the judge can sign an arrest warrant that authorizes police to locate and arrest the suspect.

Arrest warrants in New Jersey may be issued in some of the following situations: 

  • As a result of a citizen complaint to the police, Department of Children and Families, or other investigative agency
  • Upon investigation of a crime by a law enforcement agency
  • After a grand jury indictment has been issued

The standard of proof for issuing an arrest warrant is far lower than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard necessary to convict. Many individuals who are arrested pursuant to a warrant may ultimately have their charges dismissed. To protect and preserve your legal rights, it's important to contact an experienced New Jersey defense lawyer as quickly as you can after learning about a warrant (or being arrested). 

When an arrest warrant becomes active, it will be recorded in a criminal database accessible by state (and sometimes federal) law enforcement officials. This means that you can be arrested by law enforcement in other states for an active warrant in New Jersey; after you're arrested, you may be extradited to New Jersey to appear in court for your charges. 

What is a bench warrant in New Jersey?

Like an arrest warrant, a bench warrant can lead to the arrest of the warrant's subject — however, there are a few key distinctions. A bench warrant doesn't require the district attorney to petition the court, convene a grand jury, or file a probable cause affidavit. Instead, it can be issued directly by the judge.

Bench warrants are generally thought of as less severe than an arrest warrant, and it's true that they tend to be issued for more minor violations—failing to appear at a scheduled court hearing, failing to respond to a summons, violating a court order, or engaging in civil contempt of court.

Some specific situations in which a bench warrant can be issued include: 

  • Disrupting court proceedings
  • Threatening a judge, witness, or another party in the courtroom
  • Failing to appear at a scheduled court hearing
  • Failing to pay a traffic ticket or other civil citation
  • Failing to pay court fines 
  • Failing to pay court-ordered child support
  • Failing to respond to a subpoena
  • Failing to complete your court-ordered probation
  • Violating a protective order or restraining order

Although law enforcement agencies don't throw all their resources into hunting down individuals with active bench warrants, if you're pulled over for speeding or another traffic violation, or if you're otherwise required to provide your identification to police, you could be arrested. 

Both bench and arrest warrants are different from search warrants, which allow the police to search a specified area (like a house, car, or business) and seize any evidence of criminal activity they encounter. 

However, if you're arrested pursuant to an arrest or bench warrant, police have the ability to search your person for any contraband before transporting you to jail; if you're stopped while driving, police could also search your vehicle. 

If police find anything illegal during this search, you could face additional criminal charges. 

How can a New Jersey lawyer can help if you have an arrest or bench warrant?

If you have a warrant for your arrest in New Jersey, a criminal defense attorney can help in a number of ways.

Investigating the evidence against you

For an arrest warrant to be issued, there must be probable cause—which means that there's some evidence indicating you've committed a crime, such as a theft crime or robbery. If a bench warrant is issued, the judge has proof that you've missed a court date, failed to pay a fine, or committed another civil violation.

In either event, it's important for an attorney to investigate the circumstances around your arrest and the evidence against you. 

Criminal defense attorneys have experience in investigating evidence and building a case—and, most importantly, they're familiar with the rules and procedures that they'll need to follow to get this evidence before a judge or jury.

New Jersey's rules of criminal procedure and rules of evidence can be complex, and proceeding without a skilled defense attorney can leave you at a clear disadvantage when it comes to presenting your defense.

Gathering evidence in support of your defense

Along with evaluating the evidence the prosecution has gathered to justify your arrest, your criminal defense attorney can investigate and gather evidence to support your defense.

If you're being prosecuted for a crime, the district attorney will need to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a much higher threshold than the probable cause required for an arrest warrant. 

The evidence your defense attorney puts together can help you create reasonable doubt—whether this means arguing mistaken identity or showing that any actions you took didn't amount to a criminal offense. With enough evidence in your favor, you may be able to negotiate the dismissal of your charges or be acquitted after a trial.

If a bench warrant has been issued as a result of failing to pay a fine, child support, or other costs, or if you're being charged with contempt of court, a criminal defense attorney can still help mitigate the charges against you and advise you on your next steps.

Your attorney may talk to witnesses, friends, and family members to gather evidence to use in later negotiations.

Negotiating with prosecuting attorneys

Relatively few criminal cases make their way to a jury; most are resolved through a plea bargain.

By pleading guilty to a criminal offense and eliminating the need for the district attorney to go through the time and expense needed for a trial, you can often receive a lesser sentence than you'd risk by going to trial. Your defense attorney can negotiate with the district attorney to secure a favorable deal.

For more minor offenses, you may be able to negotiate a deferral—which can allow charges to be dismissed or expunged if you pay a fine or go a certain period of time without committing another offense.

Deferrals can be common for traffic tickets or other non-violent offenses; and because these offenses are dismissed if you complete the deferral period without incident, you may even be able to avoid having your auto insurance rates increase.

However, there are some situations in which accepting a guilty plea isn't the best option, and your criminal defense attorney is in the best position to advise you on the merits of pleading guilty and the merits of going to trial. 

There's no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to criminal charges, and the right decision for you can depend on a variety of factors, including the strength of your defense and the potential consequences associated with a misdemeanor or felony on your record.

For example, if you have a professional license (like a teaching license), pleading guilty to certain types of felonies could mean having this license rescinded, impacting your lifetime earning potential. 

Unless you can negotiate a guilty plea to a misdemeanor that allows you to keep your professional license, going to trial with a strong defense can give you the greatest odds of being acquitted—and staying in your job. 

Have a warrant or questions about your rights? Speak with a criminal defense attorney at Breslow Law today

Both arrest warrants and bench warrants can carry serious consequences, even if they stem from fairly minor offenses. And while it can be tempting to ignore a warrant—especially if you don't regularly encounter the police—evading an arrest or bench warrant can just make things worse when you are eventually arrested.

Fortunately, you don't need to go through this process alone. 

If you've had an arrest warrant issued against you or a loved one, contact us online or call 973-239-8000 to discuss your charges and defense options with an experienced NJ criminal defense lawyer at Breslow Law Offices. 

We offer a no-risk, free consultation to help you explore your legal options.


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Breslow Law Offices helps individuals and families across New Jersey navigate through important, life-changing events