Some people in California who have had warrants dismissed or who have already served a sentence may find that warrant reappearing years later. These so-called "ghost warrants" are often for minor issues, such as traffic violations or unpaid fees, and disproportionately affect poor people. While sometimes this happens because prosecutors will not let minor cases go, it is often a case of clerical error.
For example, when charges are dismissed or a person has completed their sentence, outstanding warrants related to the case are also supposed to be dismissed. However, if a clerk does not make that change accurately, it could appear as though a warrant is still out on the person. This could happen if the person is stopped for an unrelated matter or even if the person is in a car accident. The latter happened to a man who had served two years for armed robbery as a teenager in a plea deal.
Others may face the loss of jobs or even relationships. This was the case for one man who has spent months in jail over a 2006 bad check writing charge even though his probation should have expired. Furthermore, there is little recourse for people when this happens. The Supreme Court's ruling has been that this is within the margin of acceptable honest errors for law enforcement agencies.
People who are facing charges for even minor violations may want to consult an attorney about criminal defense. The attorney might be able to offer strategies for getting charges reduced or even dismissed. Furthermore, while it can be difficult to prepare for the possibility of a clerical error such as the ones above, an attorney may be able to assist people in understanding their rights and what steps they might be able to take to ensure that warrants and other paperwork associated with their case are handled correctly.