Most often, the term warrant refers to a specific type of authorization, that is, a writ issued by a competent officer, usually a judge or magistrate, which permits an otherwise illegal act that would violate individual rights and affords the person executing the written protection from damages if the act is performed. According to the U.S. Constitution, the person being investigated, arrested or having their property seized is given a copy.
A warrant is usually issued by a court and is directed to a sheriff, constable or a police officer. Warrants normally issued by a court include search warrants, arrest warrants, and execution warrants. A typical arrest warrant in the United States will take the approximate form of: "This Court orders the Sheriff or Constable to find the named person, wherever he may be found, and deliver said person to the custody of the Court." Generally, a U.S. arrest warrant must contain the caption of the court issuing the warrant, the name (if known) of the person to be arrested, the offense charged, the date of issue, the officer(s) to whom the warrant is directed, and the signature of the magistrate. Warrants are also issued by other government entities, particularly legislatures, since most have the power to compel the attendance of their members. This is called a call of the house.
In the United Kingdom, senior public appointments are made by warrant under the royal sign-manual, the personal signature of the monarch, on the recommendation of the government. In an interesting survival from medieval times, these warrants abate (lose their force) on the death of the sovereign if they have not already been executed. This particularly applied to death warrants in the days when England authorized capital punishment. Perhaps the most celebrated example of this occurred on 17 November 1558 when several Protestant heretics were tied to their stakes in Smithfield, and the firewood bundles were about to be lit when a royal messenger rode up to announce that Mary I had died and that the warrants had lost their force. The first formal act of Mary's successor, Elizabeth I, was to decline to re-issue the warrants, and the heretics were released a few weeks later.
For many years, the English government had used a "general warrant" to enforce its laws. These warrants were broad in nature and did not have specifics as to why they were issued or what the arrest was being made for. A general warrant placed almost no limitations on the search or arresting authority of a soldier or sheriff. This concept had become a serious problem when those in power issued general warrants to have their enemies arrested when no wrongdoing had been done. During the mid-18th century, the British government outlawed all general warrants. This study of the history of England made the American Founding Fathers ensure that general warrants would be illegal in the United States as well when the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1791.