How Does a Magistrate Determine if an Arrest Warrant can be issued?

One of a Virginia magistrate’s most important functions is that of a judicial officer in conducting a hearing to determine whether an arrest warrant can be issued.

The issue before the magistrate is whether probable cause exists to issue process of arrest.  Probable cause is found using a “totality of the circumstances” test  to analyze the facts of the complaint and is best defined as “a reasonable ground of suspicion, supported by circumstances sufficiently strong in themselves to warrant a prudent and cautious man to believe that the accused is guilty of the offense with which he is charged.” Sanders v. Palmer, 55 F. 217 (2nd Cir. 1893).

After the magistrate makes an independent determination that 1) there are facts logically indicating the accused committed or is committing an offense; and 2) there is some basis for determining that the facts in the complaint are reliable, he has determined that there is probable cause to issue the arrest warrant.

A complaint that does not contain enough information to establish probable cause is legally insufficient and no process of arrest can be issued. For example, a complaint that states, “I swear John Smith committed assault and battery last Tuesday night,” provides no facts by which the magistrate can evaluate whether probable cause exists and only states a “mere conclusion.” If the complaint is based on personal knowledge and states, “I saw John Smith take my car Tuesday night without my permission,” the magistrate can evaluate the complaint by assessing the facts recited.

If constitutional rights are to be preserved, it is essential that the magistrate avoid becoming a “rubber stamp” for police officers. The magistrate exists as a check on the police officers’ powers and duties. If the relationship between the officers and the magistrate becomes too informal, this safeguard disappears.

If you have been arrested or seek justice for someone who has been accused of committing a crime, do not hesitate to contact the criminal lawyers at Winslow & McCurry, PLLC at 804-423-1382.