Whether it was intentional or not, if you’ve missed your court date, you’re probably in a bit of trouble. Just how much trouble is that, though? Worst case scenario, you now have a warrant out for your arrest. However, there are steps that you can take to prevent this. There are several occasions that you may have to show up in court throughout the process of a trial, and it’s necessary that you attend all of them. Yet in the event that you miss one of several of them, it’s essential to be familiar with your state’s laws and consequences surrounding failure to appear in court.
What Is Failure to Appear in Court?
One can be charged with failure to appear in court when, as it sounds, they don’t show up for a required court appearance. Being charged with a crime and facing one’s own trial isn’t the only reason why someone would be required to show up for court. Missing a court date for a traffic violation, testifying as a witness, civil court, and jury duty can also result in failure to appear charges. If pursued to the highest degree, this can result in criminal charges with applicable penalties.
Penalties for Failure to Appear in Court
Even if there’s a perfectly good explanation for why the defendant missed a court appearance, there may still be consequences. The most common of these is a bench warrant, which is a warrant giving law enforcement permission to bring someone into custody at any time. In most cases, that doesn’t mean that the police are going to go out specifically looking for the defendant. However, for example, if they get pulled over for a regular traffic stop and the officer runs a background check and sees the warrant out for their arrest, they could be brought into custody to await a trial. But if the crime the defendant is charged with is serious, there’s a good chance law enforcement will seek out the individual to fulfill the warrant. Once brought in though, the defendant will have the chance to plead their case about why they had to miss the court date. But if the judge finds them guilty, there are several penalties that can be assigned.
As usual, jail time is always a risk when it comes to a criminal charge. Under 18 U.S. Code § 3146, the punishment for failure to appear will vary based on the severity of the original crime committed. A crime punishable by death, life imprisonment, or 15 or more years, for example, can result in ten years in prison for missing a court date. Offenses that would result in five or more years of prison time can also come with five years in prison. Any other felony comes with up to two years in prison. For misdemeanor charges, they face up to a year in jail. Those that were simply supposed to be at court as material witnesses may even face up to a year in jail. These prison sentences will run consecutively with the imprisonment for their other conviction. All charges may also come with a fine, which is another common penalty with failure to appear in court sentences.
It’s also very likely that the defendant’s bail will be affected. For one, they will likely lose any bail they posted, as that’s the assurance that the bail system is supposed to provide – the defendant is released after paying bail on the condition that they will return to court for their appearance, after which, they’ll receive the amount paid in bail back. Therefore, failure to appear to court means that the defendant is forfeiting the refund of their bail, including any property that may have been put up as collateral. Additionally, the amount of bail may change, meaning that, if the defendant didn’t need to pay bail before, they may have to now, or the amount of bail they need to pay may increase. Furthermore, the judge may simply require that the defendant await their time until their next court appearance in jail, not allowing the opportunity to be released on bail at all.
Additionally, the defendant may have their license suspended or revoked. In civil cases, it’s likely that failure to appear will result in a judgement in the favor of who showed up to court that day, though the judge could possibly follow through with all of the other previously mentioned punishments as well.
Defenses for Failure to Appear in Court
There are very valid defenses for missing a court date, and some judges will be sympathetic. One good reason is that the defendant was not notified of the court date. However, this isn’t a quick and easy defense. For instance, if the reason that the defendant didn’t receive their notice was because they failed to notify the court of an address change, this won’t be a valid defense for failure to appear in court.
Another obvious excuse is an actual emergency. This may include a serious illness or accident of the defendant or an immediate family member, a natural disaster, death in the family, or anything else that would truly prevent someone from making it to their court date. It’s best to keep proof of any incidents if possible, such as a doctor’s note, police report, or some other official documentation of the event.
It’s important to note that, even if the defense may not be valid for removing all fault from missing the court date, it is still worth informing the judge on the circumstances that kept the defendant from making the court date, especially if it was unintentional, as this may at least make the judge have more mercy and provide a lesser sentence.
However, for all of these defenses to work, it necessary to show that the defendant wasn’t showing reckless disregard for their obligation to show up and that they truly were not able to make it to their court appearance because of reasons out of their control. Yet most cases will require that it be proven that the defendant did, in fact, willfully miss the court date, meaning accidents happen, and the court can be reasonable in this case. Additionally, it should be demonstrated how the defendant immediately attempted to rectify the situation after the extenuating circumstances had passed. For example, did they immediately notify the court or wait until they were brought in on a bench warrant? The best option, if possible, is to prevent the missed court date from even happening and rescheduling as soon as the defendant knows they can’t make the appearance.
What If You Can’t Make a Court Appearance?
The first step is to contact your attorney if possible. They will most likely know if your reason for not being able to attend is going to be valid to the court and what steps that you need to take to ensure that the process doesn’t even progress to you being charged with failure to appear and a bench warrant being taken out in your name.
You may also contact the courts yourself and tell them the reason why you won’t be able to make it to the court date. Nothing is certain, especially if you’re charged with a more serious crime, but it’s possible that the court will be able to work with you and reschedule for a time that you can make.
If you have already missed your court appearance, the same steps should be taken as soon as possible to prevent the charges being elevated. If you contact the court quickly and attempt to remedy the situation, they are far more likely to work with you and be lenient, especially if the situation is out of your control. Overall, it’s better to get into contact with the court so they know that you aren’t avoiding them or trying to run out on your charges; you’re simply unable to make the appointment.
How to Have Your Bench Warrant Recalled
If you have missed your court date and there’s a warrant out for your arrest, again, it’s best to immediately get in contact with your attorney or the court. Bench warrants can be incredibly serious, especially because you may be arrested at any time in any place, unless the warrant says otherwise. It’s important to get a bench warrant taken care of as quickly as possible, especially because it may turn up on a background check and could prevent you from leaving the state or country.
You should be mailed notification that a warrant has been put out for your arrest. You then have the choice of voluntarily turning yourself over to the court or waiting to be arrested. Obviously, coming to court of your own accord is the best option and will come with the most lenient penalties. It’s never a good idea to run away from the situation, even if you feel you may be in a lot of trouble for missing your court date. In misdemeanor cases, it’s likely that your attorney can show up and rectify the situation without you. But in felony cases, you will probably have to be there yourself to have the bench warrant removed.
If you do show up at the courthouse, it’s best to bring along your attorney just in case. If you’re worried about being taken into custody or what may be awaiting you, talk to your attorney about what may happen or call the court ahead of time to find out what the process is. In fact, it’s recommended to call ahead before showing up. Just be prepared that it is possible that you will be held in jail with or without bail until your court date.
However, if the case is not a serious one and you have proven quick compliance, the following is the most likely scenario. You will probably have to schedule a new court date to speak to the judge and explain what happened, as well as show that you are willing to accept the consequences. The judge is likely to then recall the bench warrant and make a deal with you surrounding the missed court date. It’s just very important that you make this court date, as it’s not so likely that the judge will be lenient the second time around.
You should know that, in most states, with a charge of failure to appear in court, you still have the same rights as if you were charged for any other crime. You have the right to an attorney, a fair trial, and requiring your guilt to be proven to a certain standard.
Contempt of Court
In some states, missing a court date can result in contempt of court charges. These charges are much more broad and include cases where someone is disobedient in the courtroom, as well as not appearing at all. It’s defined as either direct, which is outwardly doing something to defy the judge and cause disruption, or indirect, which is failure to do something – like appear in court. This doesn’t just include the defendant; anyone in a court room can be held in contempt of court.
For direct misbehavior, it must be proven that there was a:
(2) in or near the presence of the court,
(3) with criminal intent,
(4) that resulted in an obstruction of the administration of justice.
Indirect misbehavior, or a failure to comply, requires that:
(1) the court entered a lawful order of reasonable specificity;
(2) the accused contemnor violated the order; and
(3) the violation was willful.
According to 42 U.S. Code § 1995, criminal contempt can be punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, up to six month in jail, or both.
Showing Up for Court
When you do go to court, it’s important to be sure that you’re there on time, at the right place, in the right attire, and with the appropriate behavior. You should have received some notification about your required presence in court, which should have all of the details of when and where your court appearance will be held. Be sure to arrive early, as coming late could result in a negative result for your case or failure to appear in court charges. Be prepared for the case with all of the evidence you may need. Go over what you want to say to the judge several times beforehand. You also want to arrange for someone to take care of your children while you’re in court. Refer to the judge as “Your Honor” and be as respectful as possible. Remain calm and plead your case to the best of your ability. While in the courtroom, obey all courtroom rules, remain quiet, and don’t cause any disruptions.
It’s also important to be dressed appropriately. If possible, dress up in nice, business clothes. Making a good first impression is important, and looking clean and well put together is one way to do this. Do not wear shorts or skirts and dresses that are inappropriately short. It’s suggested, and in most courts required, that you not wear:
- Tank, halter, or tube tops
- Flip flops
- See through clothing
- Ripped clothes
- Clothes that expose the midriff or underwear
- Clothes with inappropriate or violent words or images
If you come to court in any of these clothing items, it’s likely you will be forced to change or asked to leave. This can result in missing your court date.
Other courtroom rules that are generally enforced are not using a cell phone, no eating or gum, no cameras, and no weapons.
A Very Important Date
Overall, you should treat your court date as a very serious event that cannot be missed. If you feel you will not be able to make it for valid reasons, contact your attorney or try to reschedule with the court clerk. This should always be your first step rather than just missing the court date. If you find that you have missed your court appearance, get into contact with your attorney or the court as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more trouble you’ll be in. If you find yourself with a warrant, it’s still best to reach out to the court and find some kind of solution; they’re likely to work with you as long as you’re willing. This doesn’t mean that you’ll go without consequences, but it can greatly improve your chances of having the charges dropped or your sentence greatly reduced. Missing a court date isn’t the end of the world – don’t let it ruin your life.