How to Handle a Bench Warrant or Failure to Appear in Alabama

Missing a court appearance in a criminal case in Alabama is a serious matter. It's best to deal with it before you're arrested for failing to appear.

Failure to appear for a court appearance in a criminal case in Alabama can result in a warrant for your arrest, an additional criminal charge for the offense of failure to appear, and forfeiture of any bond you posted (except in cases involving only traffic tickets).

A warrant for arrest literally directs the police to arrest you and bring you before the court. When police arrest a person for failure to appear, the person typically will be taken to jail and held there until a judge is available for a hearing.

Failure to Appear on Summons and Complaint

If you are charged with a misdemeanor that does not involve violence, alcohol, or drugs – for instance, disorderly conduct, littering, or violation of a leash law – rather than arresting you and taking you to jail, the police officer can issue a summons and complaint directing you to appear in court on a certain date. If you do not appear as directed, the court can issue a warrant for your arrest and charge you with the misdemeanor of failing to appear, if the failure to appear was willful. Ala. Code §11-45-9.1.

Failure to Appear in an Appeal to Circuit Court

Municipal Courts in Alabama handle charges for violations of city laws and misdemeanors that occur within the city in which a municipal court is located. When a person is found guilty of a misdemeanor in a municipal court, that person can appeal the conviction and have a new trial in a circuit court.

If the defendant does not appear for the trial in the circuit court, the court will dismiss the appeal thirty days after the trial date and return the case to the municipal court. The municipal court can then issue an arrest warrant, or police can arrest the defendant without a warrant as an escapee. Ala. Code §§12-14-70 and 12-22-112. If, within the thirty days, the defendant contacts the circuit court and shows good cause for the failure to appear, the court can set aside the dismissal of the appeal and reschedule the new trial.

Failure to Appear in a Misdemeanor or Felony Case

If you are arrested or formally charged with a crime in Alabama and you are released after posting a bond or on your own recognizance (based on your promise to appear), you must appear for all court dates such as arraignment, hearings, trial, and sentencing. If you do not appear for a court date, the judge can issue a warrant for your arrest and charge you with the crime referred to as bail jumping in the first or second degree.

Bail jumping in the first degree is the offense of failing to appear in a case in which the person is charged with a serious felony such as murder or a Class A or B felony. (Ala. Code §13A-10-39.) Bail jumping in the first degree is a Class C felony, punishable by one year and one day or up to ten years in prison and a fine up to $15,000.

Bail jumping in the second degree is the offense of failing to appear in a case in which the person is charged with a less serious crime – a Class C felony or a misdemeanor. (Ala. Code §13A-10-40.) Bail jumping in the second degree is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine up to $6000.

Defenses to Bail Jumping and Failure to Appear

A person in Alabama can be found guilty of bail jumping or failure to appear only when the failure to appear was willful. If the failure to appear was unintentional or unavoidable and due to circumstances beyond the defendant’s control, the defendant cannot be found guilty of this crime. A reasonable defense for failure to appear includes a motor vehicle accident, hospitalization, illness, a death in the family, the defendant’s car breaking down on the way to court, getting the court date wrong, being in jail in another location, or the court failing to give notice or accurate notice of the court date. The statute is not intended to punish someone for negligence or circumstances that prevented him from appearing for court.

Similarly, in an appeal to circuit court from a municipal court, defendants can show good cause for failure to appear if they missed a court for one of the reasons listed above, or because of other circumstances beyond their control.

What to Do If You Fail to Appear or Learn a Warrant for Arrest Has Been Issued

An arrest warrant for failure to appear allows the police to take you into custody essentially anywhere, at any time. The police can come to your home, your work or place of business, or a social event and arrest you. You also can be arrested if a police officer discovers the warrant during a traffic stop for even a minor traffic violation.

A conviction for bail jumping or failure to appear becomes part of your criminal record and can affect your conditions of release if you are charged with another crime in the future. The conviction will appear in any background checks for employment or housing.

If the court finds that your failure to appear was willful or not based on good cause and you posted a bond to get out of jail, the court can forfeit your bond. This means that the court will keep the bond and the money will not be returned to you.

If you miss a court date or learn that a court has issued a warrant for your arrest for failure to appear, contact an attorney immediately for legal advice. An experienced criminal defense attorney can contact the court on your behalf, possibly arrange for you to appear in front of the judge rather than be taken into custody, and assist you in preparing a defense or addressing sentencing if you are formally charged with bail jumping or failure to appear.

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