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What is the difference between a warrant and a summons?

Both a warrant and summons serve the same purpose - to get a person charged with a criminal or traffic offense to court. But while a warrant and summons serve the same purpose, the practical effect on the person charged can be significant.

A summons is a written order, issued by the court after a criminal or traffic complaint has been filed, that requires the person named in the complaint to appear in court on a specific date and time to answer the alleged charge. When a summons is used, a person may or may not be processed, but before released, they are required to sign the charging document promising to appear in court without a bond to ensure their appearance. 

Police and prosecutors will often use a summons rather than arrest a person they believe will appear in court and who poses no immediate threat to the public. A summons can be incorporated into a charging document, called a citation, or it may be issued by the court or the clerk of courts after charges have been filed. Failure to appear as directed on the summons can result in the issuance of a warrant (that is described below). Examples of charges where summonses are typically used include low level, nonviolent misdemeanors and most traffic offenses including OVI charges.

In the alternative, a warrant can be used to get a person charged to court. Like a summons, a warrant is also a written order issued by a court after the filing of a criminal or traffic complaint, but unlike a summons, a warrant requires the police to arrest the person named in the warrant. Once the person is arrested on the warrant, they can be held in jail for up to 48 hours before they are brought before the issuing Court to answer the alleged charges. In these instances, the Court is required to set a bond that may require a person's promise to return to court or it may require a person to post a money bond by cash, property or surety.

Like a summons, police and prosecutors have some discretion in the use of a warrant and they may decide to use a warrant rather than a summons if they believe a person is a flight risk or poses an immediate danger to the community. Use of a warrant is also be preferred under the law for misdemeanors where there is an allegation of violence and most felony offenses.

If you or someone you know has received a summons or an arrest warrant to appear in court and you need representation, please feel free to contact the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Rittgers & Rittgers for a free consultation. 

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