In all 50 states, bench warrants are the most widespread form of warrant issued by today’s courts. The most common source of an outstanding bench warrant is failing to appear before a judge on the day and time of a scheduled court hearing. There are, however, a wide variety of additional reasons why bench warrants can be issued, so individuals who discover outstanding warrants in their name should start by gathering more information about their case and understanding what actions can lead to these warrants being issued. Depending on the situation, which can vary widely, individuals with unresolved bench warrants can often post bail and avoid jail time before a hearing. Gathering facts and understanding available options, however, is essential to formulating the right strategy for effectively mitigating the potential consequences of a bench warrant.
Understanding Bench Warrants
Bench warrants are issued for misbehavior that occurs while a defendant ought to be before a judge in court. In strict legal terms, a bench warrant could, therefore, be issued for a defendant who attends a court hearing but engages in misconduct. Since most defendants have the decorum to not misbehave in court, the vast majority of bench warrant problems arise in the aftermath of a defendant being cited for a misdemeanor they perceive as having minor consequences. Since petty violations, such as speeding tickets or fines for city ordinances, can ordinarily be paid off in advance with little hassle, individuals often assume that these funds will be collected through conventional means. Unfortunately, by failing to pay a fine by the date listed on a citation, violators are considered as having failed to appear in court; therefore, they will have a bench warrant issued for their arrest.
The most common form of bench warrant is a bond warrant, which permits a defendant to post bail and return for a court hearing on a later date. Individuals who were not arrested but discover that they have an outstanding bond warrant in their name can post bail to avoid future arrest. The cost of bail is relatively minor for failure to appear violations associated with small offenses, but it can be high for defendants accused of a severe crime who skipped trial. Defendants accused of a low-level offense, such as a misdemeanor, are typically subjected to bond warrants after failing to appear for the first time. Some jurisdictions allow bond warrants associated with minor violations, such as traffic fines or littering violations, to be expunged from a defendant’s public record; however, expunging a bond warrant is not and automatic process, and exercising this right requires initiative from the defendant.
The more severe form of bench warrant is a no-bond warrant, which is issued for relatively serious offenses that are classified as a bench violation. Individuals who misbehave in court or fail to appear for a second time could have a no-bond bench warrant issued in their name. When a no-bond bench warrant is issued, defendants will always be made aware of this fact because they either will have been reprimanded during trial or will have missed trial after posting bail. A judge might issue a no-bond warrant when a defendant has a recurring history of skipping bail before a hearing, and, in many jurisdictions, these warrants can be issued as a punitive measure for egregious bench violations. Although no-bond warrants are rare, they require defendants to be arrested and remain in jail until a verdict has been issued. Defendants who are faced with a no-bond warrant, therefore, must devise a well-founded legal strategy for managing these serious warrants with limited future consequences.
Reasons for the Issuance of a Bench Warrant
Failing to pay a fine is the most common reason for individuals to receive a bench warrant. Bench warrants can, however, be issued for a wide range of offenses that range from misdemeanors to felonies. Bench warrants can be issued for individuals who violate the terms of their probation from a previous crime. Individuals who fail to abide by the terms of any court order can have a bench warrant issued in their name. Bench warrants can also be issued for very severe actions of a court, such as when an individual is indicted by a grand jury. Individuals who discover outstanding warrants, therefore, must be prepared to tailor their defense to the unique circumstances of their violation.
Implications of an Outstanding Bench Warrant
Each type of bench warrant entails different consequences for a defendant. Bond warrants have limited consequences as long as bail is posted, but they must be treated with the seriousness they deserve to avoid unnecessary repercussions. Defendants sometimes neglect bond warrants intentionally, and they pay the price for their actions with jail time before trial and harsher sentences later down the road. In contrast, defendants faced with a bond warrant who take responsibility for their actions rarely have to pay more than a small fine to make their legal problems go away. Judges always have the power to drop charges, and prosecutors are more willing to negotiate settlements with defendants who take responsibility for their actions. If necessary, therefore, defendants faced with more severe forms of bench warrants should be prepared to surrender themselves to the authorities; however, competent legal counsel should be retained before proceeding to maximize the advantages gained through such actions of good faith.
Knowing When Bench Warrants are Outstanding
In former times, bench warrants were difficult to manage because defendants would have to contact each jurisdiction where they might have committed a crime to find out whether they had an outstanding warrant. Today, however, electronic records have simplified the discovery of bench warrants in most jurisdictions. Many state and local governments offer online public records searches that allow defendants to determine whether there is an outstanding bench warrant in their name. Furthermore, several online services are available that allow defendants to conduct comprehensive searches for bench warrants that have been issued anywhere in U.S. territory. Legal professionals often have access to advanced databases that provide detailed information about the individual circumstances associated with bench warrants so that defendants can better determine what to do about them.
How to Eliminate Bench Warrants
Some individuals are arrested after having a bench warrant issued in their name. However, most law enforcement agencies are overwhelmed with the vast number of laws that they are charged with enforcing and, therefore, often consider bench warrants for minor violations as relatively unimportant compared to other responsibilities. Many individuals with outstanding bench warrants might not be arrested in their home and, thus, can take their time to gather information and consult with professional attorneys before turning themselves in to the authorities. Once an individual has turned themselves in for arrest or posted the required bail amount, the bench warrant itself is no longer of concern. However, since bench warrants are issued to bring a defendant in for a trial hearing, the original violation itself must still be dealt with in the court of law.
Many individuals are terrified when they discover a bench warrant issued in their name, but the consequences of such warrants are surmountable in the vast majority of situations. Bench warrants can often be eliminated from an individual’s public record, and, when charges can’t be dropped entirely, they can often be managed with limited consequences. However, defendants can only hope to mitigate the damage associated with a bench warrant unless a tenable legal defense is established before moving forward. Competent legal counsel, therefore, is critical for individuals facing a bench warrant associated with an alleged crime.