If you discover that a bench warrant or arrest warrant has been issued against you or that you have missed a court hearing that you were ordered to attend (as a defendant or a witness), the most important thing to do is take action immediately. When you didn't show up, the judge may have issued a bench warrant for your arrest. This means that the police can take you into custody at any time – at a routine traffic stop, at your home or office, or when you appear at court on another matter. If you do not address the warrant, you will have to worry constantly that you may suddenly be taken to jail.
Why Are Warrants Issued?
Courts issue warrants for various reasons.
- Bench warrant. A bench warrant is a warrant directing law enforcement to take a person into custody and bring the person before the court to address the reason the warrant was issued. Courts most commonly issue bench warrants for failure to appear, for violating probation, or for failure to comply with a court order to pay a fine, complete community service, pay child support, or do some other act. If you are picked up on a warrant, you could be held in jail until the court has a hearing on your case, or you could be required to post a high bond and pay court fees.
- Arrest warrant. If the police have enough evidence that you committed a crime, an officer or detective can request that the court issue a warrant for your arrest. Once in custody, you can be held without bail until an arraignment, release hearing, or similar proceeding.
Consequences of Missing a Court Appearance
For minor criminal charges or traffic tickets, you may receive a summons or notice in the mail to appear in court. A summons or notice to appear is a court order. 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. If you do not appear as ordered, you have violated the court order and the judge can charge you with the crime of failure to appear or contempt of court.
In addition to charging you with a crime, the court can take various actions if you fail to appear.
- Bench warrant. As described above, a bench warrant directs law enforcement to take you into custody and bring you before the court to address your failure to appear. You can be held without bond on a bench warrant until the court schedules a hearing.
- 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. Defendants are typically not told of their constitutional right to counsel at this point, a practice that South Carolina's Chief Justice has found unconstitutional (the Justice ordered a county's sheriff's office to suspend service of such warrants).
- 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.
Take Action and Consult an Attorney
If you know you missed a court appearance or discover a court has issued a warrant against you, you don’t have to wait, worry, and wonder when you may be taken into custody. Consult with an attorney immediately. Alternatives to going directly to jail may be available to you, such as:
- The court might allow you to appear at arraignment rather than be taken into custody on the arrest warrant.
- The court might be willing to schedule a hearing to address a bench warrant before an arrest occurs, or
- An attorney may be able to arrange for you to turn yourself in at the booking area of the jail rather than be picked up by police.
An attorney will know how to handle an arrest warrant, will know the law in your state or community regarding failure to appear, and can assist and advise you in how to proceed. An attorney also can appear with you at any hearings regarding failure to appear, help you explain why you failed to appear, and fight to keep you out of jail. If you qualify as very low income, the Public Defender's Office (or other appointed counsel) may be able to help you at little or no cost.