If you're charged with a crime or issued a traffic ticket, you may be ordered to appear in court. Depending on the charges, you might be required to appear several times during a criminal case—for an arraignment, pretrial conference, hearing, trial, sentencing, or another proceeding. A summons or notice to appear is a court order. If you do not appear as ordered, you have violated the court order and may face serious consequences, even criminal charges.
Laws vary from state to state, but if you fail to appear in court when ordered, you could be charged with failure to appear, bail jumping, or contempt of court.
In addition to charging you with a crime, the court can take various actions if you fail to appear.
If you fail to appear in court when ordered, the judge can issue a warrant for your arrest. You could be taken into custody at any time after the warrant is issued. For instance, during a routine traffic stop, the police officer can access information about the warrant in the state's computer system and take you into custody. In a serious criminal case, the judge also may request that police go to your home or workplace to enforce the warrant. Once in custody, you may have to stay in jail until a hearing on your failure to appear.
A judge can impose a jail sentence or fines if you are found guilty of failure to appear, bail jumping, or contempt of court. The sentence for any of these crimes can be tacked on to the sentence imposed for the underlying offense.
In some states, the judge can order that your driver's license be suspended once you have failed to appear in court. The suspension will be effective at least until you appear before a judge to address the failure to appear.
If the court previously didn't require you to post a bond and released you on your own recognizance, the judge could change your conditions of release by imposing a bond, meaning you'll now have to deposit money with the court in order to be released from custody while your case is pending. If you posted bail in your criminal case, the judge could increase the bail amount or revoke bail entirely and make you stay in jail until your case is completed.
In order to find that you have failed to appear, the court must determine that you had proper notice and willfully did not appear.
If the proper procedure is notice by mail, the court is only required to mail notice to your address in the court records or to your attorney. If you are not represented by an attorney, such as in a traffic case, it's your responsibility to keep the court informed of your address. If your address changes and you fail to inform the court of your new address, failure to get the notice will not excuse your failure to appear.
If circumstances beyond your control kept you from appearing in court, such as serious illness, an accident, or a natural disaster, this might be a defense to a charge of failure to appear. But you should be prepared with evidence of the emergency that prevented you from making it to court.
If you're not a defendant in a criminal or traffic case but are required to appear in court as a witness or for some other purpose, you also must follow the order to appear. If you don't show up as ordered, you also will be at risk of being charged with failure to appear or criminal contempt and the court can issue a bench warrant for your arrest.
Whatever the reason, if you didn't appear as required for a court hearing or other proceeding, you should consult with a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. An attorney will know the law in your state or community regarding failure to appear and can assist and advise you on how to proceed. In particular, the attorney can represent you in a hearing before the judge to address the failure to appear.