Failure to Appear in Court

If you fail to appear for your court date, the judge can issue a warrant for your arrest. Don't let that happen -- get legal help right away to avoid being arrested.

By , Contributing Author

If you are charged with a crime or issued a traffic ticket, you may be ordered to appear in court. Depending on the charges, you may be required to appear several times during a criminal case – for an arraignment, pre-trial conference, hearing, trial, sentencing, or other 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.

Criminal Charges Can Result from Failing to Appear

Laws vary from state to state, but if you fail to appear in court when ordered, you could be charged with a crime, including:

  • Failure to appear. This is a misdemeanor or a very minor crime and the definition varies from state to state.
  • Contempt of court. This is the crime of failing to obey a court order and also is a misdemeanor or non-felony crime.

For information on another offense, see Bail Jumping—or Failing to Appear After Bailing Out.

    Consequences of Failing to Appear

    In addition to charging you with a crime, the court can take various actions if you fail to appear.

    • Bench warrant. 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 will take you into custody. In a serious criminal case, the judge also may request that police go to your home or work place to execute the warrant. Once in custody, you may have to stay in jail until a hearing on your failure to appear.
    • Jail sentence and fines. A judge can impose a jail sentence or fines if you are found guilty of failure to appear or contempt of court. (But see "Sentenced to Jail Without Representation," below.)
    • Suspension of your driver's license. 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.
    • Bond revocation or change in conditions of release. If the court previously did not 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 – requiring that you deposit money with the court in order to be released from custody while your case is pending. If you posted bond in your criminal case, the judge could increase your bond. In any case, the judge could require that you stay in jail until your case is completed.

    Sentenced to Jail Without Representation?

    Defendants who fail to show up for appearances for low-level charges have routinely been sent to jail once they are arrested on a bench warrant and brought to court. Typically, these defendants are not told of their right to a lawyer, which is constitutionally required any time a defendant faces a charge that has the potential for jail time. That may be starting to change: In November 2017, the chief judge of the South Carolina Supreme Court ordered the sheriffs in one county to immediately stop serving bench warrants issued by courts handling low-level offenses. The judge's reasoning centered on the basic right of defendants who face potential jail time to be offered a lawyer, at no cost if the defendant is indigent.

    Defenses to Failing to Appear

    In order to find that you have failed to appear, the court must determine that you had proper notice and willfully did not appear.

    Notice to 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 is your responsibility to keep the court informed of your address. If your address changes and you do not receive notice because you did not inform the court of your new address, this will not excuse your to failure to appear.

    Was the failure to appear willful?

    If circumstances beyond your control kept you from appearing in court such as serious illness, an accident, or a natural disaster, this may be a defense to a charge of failure to appear.

    Witnesses Who Fail to Appear in Court

    If you are 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 do not 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.

    Consult an Attorney

    Whatever the reason, if you did not appear as required for a court hearing or other proceeding, you should consult with an 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 in how to proceed. In particular, the attorney can represent you in a hearing before the judge to address the failure to appear.

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