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How to Handle an Outstanding Bench Warrant, Arrest Warrant, or a Missed Court Date

If you have an outstanding warrant for arrest or have received a summons to appear in court, you will face escalating penalties for failing to appear. In this article, we will go over the differences between arrest warrants and bench warrants and detail the punishments for missing court dates. Each state handles missed court dates differently, and we’ll go over a few examples of what will happen if you fail to appear.

What Is an Arrest Warrant?

An arrest warrant is a document that is issued by a magistrate or a judge that gives police the authority to take a person accused of a crime into custody. You may be wondering, what is a magistrate? In state or local courts, a magistrate is a justice of the peace or someone with jurisdiction to hear specific cases. In federal courts, a magistrate can be a judicial officer that has been assigned by a district judge to accelerate the judicial process.

An arrest warrant is only issued once the police have shown probable cause that a person may have committed a crime. Probable cause is defined as information a reasonable person would believe is adequate to suggest criminal actions. The statutes governing arrest warrants were put into place by the Fourth Amendment in order to protect people against unlawful arrests. However, an officer does not necessarily have to have an arrest warrant in order to make an arrest.

The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The warrant requirement can be excused only in exigent circumstances. In the 1982 case of United States v. Winston Bryant McConney, exigent circumstances were defined as:

“Circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to believe that entry (or other relevant prompt action) was necessary to prevent physical harm to the officers or other persons, the destruction of relevant evidence, the escape of the suspect, or some other consequence improperly frustrating legitimate law enforcement efforts.”

The other established exceptions to the warrant requirement for an arrest are consensual searches and investigatory stops in which illegal items are in plain view.

The overall goal of the Fourth Amendment is to protect people’s right to privacy. In addition to providing for a warrant requirement for arrests, the Fourth Amendment covers search and seizure laws, the exclusionary rule, electronic surveillance, and the USA Patriot Act.

What Happens When an Arrest Warrant Is Issued?

After an arrest warrant is issued, the police can arrest a person on sight. This will usually happen at the person’s home or their place of work. It can also happen if the police randomly come across the subject. For example, if a person with an outstanding arrest warrant is found on a random traffic stop, the police officer would become aware of the warrant and arrest the individual.

What Is an Outstanding Warrant?

An outstanding warrant is a warrant that was originally issued weeks or months ago but has not been fulfilled. If you have an outstanding arrest warrant, a judge has deemed that there is probable cause to have it issued. But you have not been arrested yet.

There are a few reasons why a warrant could be outstanding. The person of interest may not know that an active arrest warrant has been issued for them. Or the police may not have processed or intend to serve the warrant. This is a possibility in minor cases, such as when multiple unpaid parking tickets have piled up. Lastly, it could be possible that the person of interest is hiding from the police to avoid being arrested.

What Should I Do If I Have an Outstanding Arrest Warrant?

In many areas, it is possible to check online to see if there is a warrant out for your arrest. If you discover that you’re on a list of issued arrest warrants, it is imperative that you seek out legal assistance right away. The warrant will not simply go away over time. The longer you wait, the worse off you will be. Penalties and fines can both increase over time if you avoid an arrest warrant. You may end up facing a longer jail sentence and lose your right to drive.

The reason warrants do not expire is that if they did, it would encourage anyone with an outstanding warrant to continue avoiding it until it went away. However, warrants have no expiration date. Decades can go by, but the warrant will not go away.

If you find yourself in a situation where you get pulled over by the police and are notified of an outstanding warrant, your best option is to cooperate and seek out a lawyer experienced in handling outstanding warrants. One of the other most common occurrences of discovering outstanding warrants is when you go to renew your license at the DMV. This is a process that is required every two to four years, depending on the state you live in. When you go to take care of your license, the DMV will deny your renewal if there is an outstanding warrant.

Another common example of discovering outstanding warrants is when you go to work for a new employer. That employer will pull a background check, which is usually required by their insurance company. The insurance company will want to ensure that the employer is not harboring someone that has an outstanding issue with a judge.

When this happens, find a lawyer that is experienced in these cases. Generally, the attorney will go to the courthouse in question and attempt to get the docket for the case or the order that shows when the warrant was issued. Knowing every detail of when, where, and why a warrant was issued will help both you and your attorney to rectify the situation.

If you find yourself facing an outstanding warrant you were unaware of, your lawyer will go over your various options. These include how you want to fight the case, how you would like to turn yourself in, and how you plan to pay any bail that is owed. Once you have discussed and come to conclusions on these items, you will need to turn yourself in to law enforcement so that you can begin the process of clearing your name with your attorney.

What Is a Bench Warrant?

Bench warrants are similar to arrest warrants in the way that they are issued. The main difference is that a bench warrant is issued by a judge rather than by a magistrate. Similar to an arrest warrant, when a bench warrant has been issued, you run the risk of being brought in by the police anywhere, at any time. You run the risk of being brought in to face court proceedings while at school, at work, or even out on the town for a date night.

Bench warrants are generally issued for failures to comply with a court. These failures include not paying child support, not paying traffic tickets, violating probation, not showing up for jury duty, or other failures to appear in court when you have been called. A bench warrant is considered a non-emergency warrant, which means that the police will most likely not show up at your door to arrest you. But you do run the risk of getting taken into a local police station if you find yourself identified by the police. If this happens and it is your first time avoiding a court appearance, you will most likely be fined. A second offense, though, could send you to prison.

Penalties for Missing a Court Appearance

If you find yourself facing criminal charges, you will be required to appear in court multiple times. The summons to appear in court will be mailed to your home address. The charges against you will determine how often you will be required to appear in court. You could be required to appear for an arraignment, a pre-trial meeting, a hearing, the trial, sentencing, and other court proceedings. For every one of these appearances that you miss, you will be facing increasingly severe penalties.

Depending on the severity of the situation and the number of times you have previously missed court appearances, a judge will impose fines or a jail sentence if you are found guilty of failing to appear in court or if you are found in contempt of court. In some states, you can also find yourself unable to legally drive, as your license is suspended until you appear before a judge. You may also find yourself required to post a bond to be released from the court’s custody if you have shown a pattern of unreliability when it comes to appearing before a judge.

What Should I Do If I Have an Outstanding Bench Warrant?

If you know you have missed a court date or find that a judge has issued a warrant for you to appear, the last thing you want to do is continue to ignore the court. Not only will you be left waiting, worrying, and wondering when you will be taken into custody, you will also be facing harsher penalties.

You should seek out the assistance of an experienced attorney as soon as you discover you have an issue with the court. Be apologetic and courteous when you appear. Judges in these situations rely heavily on their first impression of those that appear in their courtroom. Most judges have a long list of cases to hear each day, and often, the leniency or harshness of their rulings come down to their own personal impressions of who stands before them.

What Happens If I Miss My Court Date?

Each state and jurisdiction handles missed court dates differently. Below are some examples of what happens if you miss a court date in various states across the country.

Alabama

If you are arrested or charged with a crime in Alabama and are released after posting bond or promising to appear in court, you will be required to show up for all court dates. Failing to appear for any of these court dates will result in a warrant for your arrest and a charge for bail jumping in the first degree or second degree. Bail jumping in the first degree is related to serious felonies, such as a Class A or Class B felony. The penalty for bail jumping in the first degree is a Class C felony, punishable by up to ten years in jail and a fine up to $15,000.

Bail jumping in the second-degree results from failing to appear in court for a Class C felony or a misdemeanor. The penalty for this is a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine up to $6,000.

Arkansas

Failing to appear in court without a reasonable excuse in a criminal case can lead to further criminal charges in Arkansas. If a person is required to appear in court and fails to do so, a bench warrant for their arrest will be issued. When you are arrested on a bench warrant, you will be taken to prison and kept there until the judge is available to hear the case.

If a defendant fails to appear in a court case involving a felony, it will result in an additional charge of a Class C felony. In Arkansas, a Class C felony is punishable by three to ten years in jail and a fine up to $10,000. Failing to appear for a revocation hearing involving a previous conviction for a felony will result in a Class D felony, which is punishable by up to six years in jail and a fine up to $10,000.

Failure to appear for a case involving a misdemeanor will result in an additional misdemeanor charge. The penalty for failing to appear for a Class A misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine up to $2,500. Failing to appear for a Class B misdemeanor is punishable by up to 90 days in prison and a fine up to $1,000. Finally, failure to appear for a Class C misdemeanor is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine up to $500.

Arizona

Similar to Arkansas, Arizona punishes failure to appear for a misdemeanor or felony with an additional misdemeanor or felony charge. Failing to appear in court for a felony will result in a Class 5 felony charge and is known as failure to appear in the first degree. In Arizona, this charge is punishable by one and a half years in jail and a fine up to $150,000. If there are mitigating circumstances, the court can reduce the sentence down to six months. Those that fail to appear in court with prior felony convictions on their record will face harsher penalties.

Failure to appear in the second degree happens in cases involving misdemeanors and petty crimes. The penalty for this crime is a Class 2 misdemeanor, which results in four months at a facility other than jail and a fine up to $750.

New Mexico

In New Mexico, when a defendant willfully fails to appear in court for a felony charge, the penalty is a fourth-degree felony, which is punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a fine up to $5,000. Failing to appear in a case involving a misdemeanor or petty crime results in an additional misdemeanor charge, which is punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine up to $500.

New York

In New York, failing to appear in court after being charged with a crime will result in bail jumping in the first, second, or third degree.

Bail jumping in the first degree happens when a person charged with a Class A or Class B felony fails to appear for court without a reasonable excuse. The penalty for bail jumping in the first degree is a Class D felony, which is punishable by up to seven years in jail and a fine up to $5,000.

Bail jumping in the second-degree results from failing to miss a court date for any other type of felony in New York. The penalty for bail jumping in the second degree is a Class E felony, which is punishable by up to four years in jail and a fine up to $5,000.

If a defendant misses a court date for any other proceeding or criminal action, the resulting charge is bail jumping in the third degree. The penalty for this in New York is a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to one year in jail or probation for three years and a fine up to $1,000.

Texas

In Texas, the crime of failure to appear in court or bail jumping is either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the underlying crime. If the crime was a felony, failure to appear results in an additional third-degree felony charge. Failing to appear in court for a crime punishable by only a fine will result in a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine but no jail time. Failure to appear for a crime with a potential jail sentence will result in a Class A misdemeanor. The penalty for a Class A misdemeanor in Texas is up to a year in prison and a fine up to $4,000.

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