Warrant Arrests in the City of St. Louis, 2002 – 2019

This study on warrant enforcement practices in the City of St. Louis, Missouri was conducted as part of The Research Network for Misdemeanor Justice (RNMJ), a project of the Data Collaborative for Justice (DCJ), that brings together researchers and local government actors to conduct research on lower-level enforcement practices around the country. This study of warrants grew out of a broader report on lower-level enforcement trends in St. Louis to help assess the role of warrants in lower-level enforcement activities.

In Missouri, courts typically issue “bench warrants” for administrative reasons, including when people fail to appear for court. Bench warrants can stem from traffic violations, low-level misdemeanors, and serious felony offenses. People may also be arrested on “fugitive warrants” – warrants that originated in a jurisdiction outside of the City of St. Louis (including neighboring jurisdictions). Missouri state law dictates that if an officer encounters a person with an open warrant, they must arrest that person. However, in practice, officers have discretion in making arrests for warrants, particularly when the warrants are linked to less serious offenses or ordinance violations.

This study examines police enforcement activities associated with bench warrants and fugitive warrants in St. Louis, Missouri from 2002- 2019. Local researchers affiliated with the RNMJ conducted a number of different analyses of warrant enforcement, including: (i) the extent to which local arrests involved warrants, (ii) how frequently arrests were being driven by warrant enforcement, (iii) the types of charges people with a warrant were being arrested for, and (iv) racial disparities in warrant enforcement practices.

This report was published in conjunction with another RNMJ report on warrant enforcement in Jefferson County, Kentucky (Louisville Metro) and, together with that report, forms the basis for a third report that compares and contrasts warrant enforcement in these two jurisdictions.

Key Findings:

  • Overall: In 2019, over one- third of arrests included at least one bench warrant, and an almost equal percentage involved at least one fugitive warrant. Many of these arrests were for bench or fugitive warrants only and were not associated with any new charges.
  • Racial Disparities: There are significant racial disparities in all types of arrests, especially those involving bench warrants. Although the race gap declined, in 2019, there were still more than four Black people arrested for bench warrants for every White person.
    •  People arrested with a bench warrant often had multiple warrants. In 2019, on average, Black individuals arrested with bench warrants had almost five warrants and White persons had almost four.
  • Arrests by warrant type: Arrests made based on bench warrants only were most likely to have an ordinance violation as the most serious original charge. The majority of bench warrants stemmed from traffic violations, most commonly failure to have vehicle insurance. Black persons were more likely to have bench warrants for this charge than White individuals.
    •  Fugitive warrants tended to be tied to traffic violations and obstruction of justice charges, such as failure to appear.
    • Compared to bench warrants arrests, fugitive warrant arrests involved more serious crimes.