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

If you are facing criminal charges in Arizona and fail to appear for court, you can be charged for a second crime. Don't let that happen -- take steps to protect yourself.

By , Attorney (New Mexico School of Law)
Updated March 27, 2023

Failure to appear for court in a criminal case in Arizona can result in a misdemeanor or felony charge for the offense of failure to appear. When a defendant in a criminal case fails to appear for court, the court also can issue a bench warrant for the defendant's arrest and order forfeiture of any posted bond.

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

Charges and Penalties for Failure to Appear in Arizona

Whether a criminal charge for failure to appear will be a felony or misdemeanor depends on what kind of case the defendant failed to appear on. The more serious the case the defendant fails to show up on, the more serious the charge for failing to appear.

Failure to Appear in the First Degree

If a defendant in Arizona knowingly fails to appear in a case involving a felony charge, they commit a Class 5 felony (which is separate from the felony case they failed to appear on).

A Class 5 felony in Arizona carries a "presumptive sentence" of 1.5 years (meaning the sentence the court should impose unless there's good reason to choose a greater or lesser sentence).

The court can reduce the presumptive sentence to any length (of at least six months) if the court finds mitigating circumstances. Mitigating circumstances are factors that justify a reduced sentence, such as the young age of the defendant, that the defendant was under unusual or substantial duress, or any information about the defendant's character or background that the judge thinks will justify a lower sentence.

On the other hand, people who have prior felony convictions can receive a greater sentence. The possible length of the sentence will depend on the number of prior convictions.

A conviction for any felony can result in a fine of up to $150,000, though a fine that hefty for a failure to appear would probably be unusual in the typical case.

(Ariz. Rev. Stat. §§ 13-702, 13-703, 13-2507 (2023).)

Failure to Appear in the Second Degree

A person can be guilty of failure to appear in the second degree if they don't show up for court on misdemeanor or petty offense charges in Arizona. A petty offense is a crime for which the penalty is a fine and no possible imprisonment.

When someone is arrested in Arizona for a misdemeanor or petty offense, the officer can release the person and require them to appear in court on a later date, instead of taking them into custody. The officer prepares a written notice to appear in court and a criminal complaint, and has the defendant sign a promise to appear. The appearance date must be within five days of the arrest.

If the person fails to appear as promised, they can be charged with failure to appear in the second degree, a Class 2 misdemeanor. The maximum sentence for a Class 2 misdemeanor in Arizona is four months in a facility other than prison (like county jail) and a fine up to $750.

If a person fails to appear for any other court date (other than the promise to appear after arrest), the failure to appear is a Class 1 misdemeanor. The maximum sentence for a Class 1 misdemeanor in Arizona is six months in a facility other than prison and a fine up to $2,500.

When someone has one or more prior convictions within two years of a new misdemeanor conviction, the penalty can increase so long as the prior convictions were for the same crime as the new conviction.

(Ariz. Rev. Stat. §§ 13-3903, 13-2506, 13-707, 13-802 (2023).)

Other Consequences for Failure to Appear in AZ

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 failure to appear becomes part of your criminal record and can affect your conditions of release and possible sentence if you are charged with another crime in the future. The conviction also will appear in background checks for matters such as employment or housing.

If you fail to appear for court in a criminal case in Arizona while released on bond, the court can forfeit your bond and you can be held in jail until your case is completed. If you posted a bond, the court will keep the bond and the money won't be returned to you when the case is over.

Defenses to Failure to Appear in Arizona

The defenses against a failure to appear charge in Arizona are limited, because the basis for the charge is just knowingly failing to appear. So, if a defendant receives proper notice of a court date and fails to appear, that's all that's needed to be guilty: they had a court date, knew of the court date, and didn't show up. Even if something unforeseeable happens that's outside the person's control, like a family member's death on court day, they can be convicted of the offense because technically they knew of the court date and failed to appear.

But all is not necessarily lost when someone misses a court date. A defendant (usually through an attorney) can file a motion to quash (cancel) a bench warrant for failure to appear, explaining the circumstances that prevented them from coming to court. The judge has the power to quash the warrant, which has the effect of dismissing the charge of failure to appear.

That's why, if you fail to appear for court and have a good reason (like a car accident or a death in the family), it's very important to contact the court right away—ideally through an attorney—and file a motion to quash the warrant as soon as possible. Don't wait to get arrested on the warrant. The judge is less likely to be sympathetic to your situation if you do nothing until the police have to arrest you and bring you before the court: When someone doesn't make an effort to fix the failure to appear, it looks less like they have a legitimate reason for not making it to court, and more like they intended not to show up.

What to Do if You Miss Your Court Date in Arizona

If you miss a court date or learn that a court in Arizona has issued a bench warrant for failure to appear, you should talk to an attorney immediately. An experienced criminal defense attorney can contact the court on your behalf, file a motion to quash the warrant, and assist you in preparing a defense or addressing sentencing if you're formally charged with the offense of failure to appear.

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