What to Do if You Have a Bench Warrant
Having a warrant for your arrest is no laughing matter. Oh, the jokes will abound from family and friends.
- “What kind of bird can’t fly?” (Answer: Jailbird.)
- “We have your plane tickets for your flight on ‘Con-Air.’”
- The ever-popular "Dead Man Walking” remark (as you’re leaving the jailhouse).
To the person who has the outstanding warrant, however, the experience can be very frightening. There are various types of warrants, but the most common is called a “bench warrant.”
Bench Warrants Are the Most Common Kind of Warrant
A bench warrant happens after you have violated the rules of court; it is a written order, issued by a judge, that authorizes the police to bring you in—first to jail, then to appear in court. The police treat it like an arrest warrant and use it to bring you in front of the judge in order to complete your unfinished business in court.
A bench warrant means that the police aren’t going to come knocking on your door looking for you. The bench warrant puts your name into a statewide database, and if you interact with police for any reason, even if it's not your fault (like if someone rear-ends your car in traffic), you will be taken into custody. If you have any contact with the police or attempt to renew your drivers license, you will be arrested, handcuffed, and put in jail until a bond is paid on your behalf.
Is a Bench Warrant Avoidable?
One would think the easiest way to avoid getting arrested is to avoid trouble. Unfortunately, this does not always work out. Sometimes you may not even be aware that there is a warrant for your arrest.
Having a bench warrant does not necessarily mean that you are a criminal. It means the judge wants to talk to you. Judges are busy; they aren’t going to take the time to give you a call.
The request will be sent to your known address, and if you do not respond by calling the court or showing up for an appointment, the judge will issue a bench warrant. If the court system does not have your correct address, there will be no attempt to get the correct one. They will simply mail paperwork to the address they have on file. Then the next time you get pulled over, your name will be run through the system by the police officer.
If you have a warrant, you will be taken into custody and held until you pay the bond (the amount of money the court has determined that you owe) or until an appointed time when the judge can see you.
These are the things you can do to avoid complications:
1. Do Not Argue With the Police
If you are allowed to post bond, you will be given an appointment to go to the courthouse to have a chat with the judge. The judge may ask you why you didn’t pay what you owed. If you owe more than the bond amount, you may be given more time to pay. The courts are not unreasonable. They know people have to survive, but they need their money to operate as well.
Most people don’t realize they have a warrant until they are pulled over by the police. If this happens, the only thing you can do is ask what it is for. The police will tell you to the best of their knowledge. There is absolutely no point in arguing. You are going to jail (unless of course you happen to have proof that the amount owed was paid). Depending on the police and your cooperation, you may or may not be handcuffed.
Do not attempt to argue with the police officer. It will only make things worse if you do. If you need to make a phone call and you are being cooperative, the police officer may allow you to use your cell phone. If you don’t have one, he or she may allow you to use his/hers. You must remember they didn’t create this problem; it was there when you were pulled over. It is not their fault.
2. Comply With the Arrest
- If you had someone in your vehicle with you and they have a license, their license may be checked before being allowed to drive your vehicle. If you were alone, your vehicle will be towed and impounded at your expense.
- You will be taken to the nearest police station and booked. This means having your fingerprints and your picture taken (front and both sides).
- You will have to remove your shoes and possibly change into “jail" clothes (a jumpsuit) depending on your county. If you inform the police officer that your bond will be paid as soon as possible, you may not have to change into jail clothes.
- You will be searched as part of the booking process.
- Once your are bonded out and being released, you may be given a bill for your jail stay. This is also called a booking fee. You will be charged for a full day's stay even if you didn’t get to eat your cold baloney sandwich and warm Kool-Aid. This must be paid or there could be another warrant issued.
3. Don't Hide: Respond to the Bench Warrant ASAP
If you find out there is a warrant for your arrest before getting pulled over, there are things you can do to avoid going to jail.
Your first step should be to call the courthouse to ask what the warrant is for. You will be told if you owe any outstanding fines/fees. These can be taken care of quickly by either paying them or setting up an appointment to speak with the judge to make payment arrangements. Depending on the reason for the bench warrant, you still may have to turn yourself in to the police department.
The courts will be glad that you have made contact and will be more than happy to work with you on making arrangements to pay the money you owe. Because the court systems in most counties are so backed up and judges' calendars are so full, the clerks are in charge of collecting monies owed. They are quite willing to take the money or payments without you ever having to see the judge.
4. Come to Court on Time and Prepared
- If you decide to see the judge and dispute the charges, you will be given an appointment time.
- Make sure you have all your paperwork in order before your appointment time.
- You should arrive 15 minutes early so the bailiff (the judge’s assistant) is aware that you are there and can inform the judge of your presence. Your file will be there as well.
- Your name will be called and now is the time you get to speak with the judge. Do not raise your voice or yell at the judge. If you do, you could be held in "contempt of court." This is just a fancy way for the judge to say, “This is my house and you don’t get to yell in it.” Keep your voice even and tell your side of the story. The judge is reasonable and will listen to you.
- If you have proof that you don’t owe the money, now is the time to show it. You will give your paperwork to the bailiff and he/she will in turn hand it over to the judge. If he feels that you have given ample evidence, your charges (fines/fees) may be dismissed. If you have paid a bond (to get out of jail), it may now be refunded.
5. Make Your Payments
If it is determined that you still owe money, the judge may ask you what you can afford to pay (if no bond has been posted or if money is still owed). You will be given an amount to pay (usually per month) and a date to have it paid by. Make every effort on your part to make these payments on time. If for some reason your payment will be late, try calling the courthouse and speaking with the clerk. If you let them know when the payment will be made, they will be more likely to work with you. If you don’t pay the money owed, it will start all over again, with a bench warrant issued for your arrest.
The next time, the judge and the clerks may not be so willing to work with you, so try and do it right the first time around.