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What to Do When Facing a Bench Warrant

Judge in court holding a gavel
By FindLaw Staff on September 30, 2016 3:57 PM

So you had a bad day, forgot about your court date, and just found out that the judge issued a bench warrant for your arrest.

What is that, and what are you supposed to do now?

What Is a Bench Warrant?

bench warrant, like any other warrant, authorizes the police to arrest you when they find you. The primary difference is that a judge issues a bench warrant instead of it coming from the police. Missing court means you are in "contempt of court," and it is a criminal charge.

The term comes from the judge's seat being called "the bench." A bench warrant is like saying you need to go in and be present in front of the judge. You may have heard the term "approach the bench" in legal TV shows. In those cases, people are literally asking the judge if they can approach where the judge sits.

A bench warrant does not represent a literal bench in the courthouse, courtroom, police station, or in a waiting area -- though it sounds like it does.

How Does a Bench Warrant Work?

A judge will tell their courtroom staff that you did not show up to court. They start the process of paperwork to get the warrant, and the same judge will sign off on it. This digital or physical paperwork is given to the entire law enforcement community. This means the warrant goes across all state lines to all police officers.

From here, there are two outcomes:

  • You get to the courtroom before the police find you
  • The police find you before you intentionally or unintentionally miss court again (and they may keep you in jail until the court date)

Accidental Reasons for Missing Court

Accidents and mistakes can happen. These typically involve one of the following:

  • The court has your wrong address on file, or the address has a typo
  • You moved addresses
  • Your probation ended and you thought your case was done
  • You were sick or in an accident (bring a doctor's note in ASAP)
  • You accidentally missed or forgot a drug test
  • You did not know about the charges
  • You thought the case was dismissed already

Common Reasons to Be Called to Court

Significant criminal charges are scary and hard to forget. But there are more mundane activities that can lead to charges, such as:

  • Forgetting a child support payment you usually pay
  • Having a child support payment or check bounce
  • Driving with an expired driver's license
  • Forgetting about a community service day

You also could be called to court for minor criminal offenses (sometimes called "infractions") such as charges from a traffic stop. Getting out of jail on bail, then not coming back for your new court date, is taken seriously by the courts. Missing your court date for criminal misdemeanors or felonies is also extremely serious.

What Happens if I Appear in Court Before the Police Find Me?

In most cases, once they know there is a bench warrant, people appear in court ASAP, as asked. You need to go to the courthouse that is handling your case. If you are in a different state, sometimes you can go to the nearest courthouse and explain you want to turn yourself in.

The judge will likely not be happy with you for skipping the first court date. But from this point on, the case will proceed like normal.

What if the Police Find Me Before I Can Get to Court?

If you forget or decide to skip the next court date after a bench warrant, the police may actively search for you. They may come to your home or business. This depends on:

  • The severity of the crime
  • The number of times you have failed to appear in court

When a judge issues a bench warrant, if the police find you, you will be arrested. If the police find you in a different city, sometimes they will take you to the nearest courthouse or jail.

Jail Time Between a Bench Warrant and Court Date

If you are pulled over on a Friday evening, you may sit in jail until Monday due to the time involved in processing, booking, and posting bail.

Even when the underlying crime is seemingly trivial, the court will view a failure to appear as a slap in the face to their authority. They may want to make sure you know they are in control and have authority over you.

To do this, they may keep you in jail until your court date or charge you other fines or penalties.

What Should You Do if You Have a Bench Warrant?

If a bench warrant has been issued for your arrest, you need to act quickly. Having a bench warrant can lead to your arrest even for something as trivial as a speeding ticket.

You have two options:

  • Get to court right away
  • Get an attorney to help defend you for missing court and for your original charges

Do I Need an Attorney After a Bench Warrant?

If you know the bench warrant exists and you do not have a lawyer, get one ASAP. Getting an attorney is always your choice, but they can step in right away to help fix the messy situation.

If the court date you missed was for a relatively minor crime, an attorney can often clear the warrant on your behalf. That way, you don't have to worry about being arrested at home or at work. Minor crimes would be something like a traffic ticket or other traffic violations.

How Long Does a Bench Warrant Last? Can They Expire?

Bench warrants last forever. That is, "forever" until you are found and arrested. They never expire, and you can be arrested across state lines. Unless you die or the judge decides to recall the bench warrant, it will always be there.

Failing to appear in court is a serious violation that can cost you time and money. And the repercussions can last after you are arrested. For example:

  • A bench warrant can potentially increase the severity of your charges.
  • It can make a judge less lenient when determining your sentence if you're found guilty or enter a plea.

Do Bench Warrants Show up on Background Checks?

It depends. Bench warrants and other warrants are not charges, so they are not part of a criminal case. Criminal records are what most jobs search for during a background check.

However, warrants are part of court records, so any searches through court records will show your bench warrant.

Bench Warrant vs. Arrest Warrant: What's the Difference?

A bench warrant comes from the judge, whereas an arrest warrant comes from the police. The police need "probable cause" that you committed a crime. The judge can only issue a bench warrant if you miss a scheduled court date.

Can You Travel Out-of-State or the Country When You Have a Bench Warrant?

No. It is illegal to leave the state or country when you have a bench warrant. You can be arrested on the spot at the airport or any transportation area that scans your ID.

Once the computer system shows you have a court order out for your arrest, your travel plans will be denied, and the police will be called.

Don't Add a Bench Warrant on Top of Other Charges

If your outstanding bench warrant is from an honest mistake, you should turn yourself in right away. Some judges are understanding, and you may look better in their eyes.

Avoiding time in jail over a bench warrant is related to:

  • The severity of the underlying crime
  • The length of time since the warrant was issued

An attorney is the surest way to get the judge to hear your side of the story about the bench warrant and missing a court hearing. If you are being charged with a misdemeanor or felony, it is advisable to get a criminal defense attorney regardless.

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