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What Is a Bench Warrant and Can I Drop It Without Going to Jail?

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Can you avoid the gavel?

Can you avoid the gavel?

Having a warrant for your arrest is no laughing matter. The experience can be very frightening. Whether or not you're surprised to learn that you're the subject of a bench warrant, there are ways to handle the problem effectively.

I was unfortunate enough to find out that I was the subject of a bench warrant for an unpaid fee associated with my son's behavior. I was surprised to find out about the bench warrant years after the incident had occurred. As a result, I had to navigate the process of responding to and clearing my bench warrant.

What Is a Bench Warrant?

There are various types of warrants, but the most common is called a “bench warrant.” A bench warrant is typically issued after a person has violated the rules of court. Keep in mind that laws and court procedures can vary by location, so always check the local rules that will apply to your specific court and circumstances. A bench warrant is a written order, issued by a judge, that authorizes the police to bring you in—first to jail, and then to appear in court. The police treat it like an arrest warrant and use it to bring you in front of a judge in order to complete your unfinished business in court.

The police aren’t going to come knocking on your door when you're the subject of a bench warrant, and they won't actively search for you. The bench warrant puts your name into a statewide database, and if you interact with the 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 for any reason while an active warrant exists, you will be arrested, handcuffed, and put in jail until a fee is paid on your behalf or another requirement is fulfilled.

Can a Bench Warrant Be Dropped?

The best way to ensure that a bench warrant is cleared is to appear in court. A person can appear in court on their own or with their attorney. In some cases, a person's attorney can appear in court on their behalf. It is best to appear with your attorney so your legal representative can help you navigate the situation effectively.

How Long Does a Bench Warrant Last?

Bench warrants typically do not expire, and a warrant can remain active until a person dies. Sometimes, a judge can decide to recall or expunge a warrant, but that rarely happens. Bench warrants can be active for decades before a person finds out. Because bench warrants can remain active for long periods of time, it is best to make a court appearance and pay any associated fees as soon as you learn that you're the subject of a warrant. According to Virginia Commonwealth University's Criminal Justice professor Matthew Pinsker, "Having a bench warrant is considered to be a criminal charge and it will remain on a person's record after it has been dismissed."

Five Things You Can Do to Avoid Bench Warrant Complications

Here are five things you can do to avoid bench warrant complications.

1. Do Not Argue With the Police

If you are allowed to post bail, 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 or fulfill another court-ordered requirement. If you owe more than the bail 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 you happen to have proof that the amount owed was paid). Depending on the police officer 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 that the officer didn’t create this problem; it was there when you were pulled over. It is not their fault, so don't take your frustration out on the officer

2. Comply With the Arrest

  • If you have a licensed passenger in your vehicle with you when you're arrested, that person can drive your vehicle away once you've been taken into custody. If you were driving 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 bail 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 you are bailed out and 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 fee must be paid or another warrant could be issued.

3. Get a Lawyer and 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 get a lawyer and then 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 payments. They are quite willing to take the money or payments without you ever having to see the judge.

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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 and/or your lawyer 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 you will 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 money, now is the time to show it. You must give your paperwork to the bailiff, and he/she will turn it over to the judge. If the judge feels that you have given ample evidence to support your claims, your charges (fines/fees) may be dismissed. If you have paid bail (to get out of jail), it may 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 bail 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, the process will start all over again, and another bench warrant will be issued for your arrest. If another bench warrant is issued, the judge and the clerks may not be so willing to work with you, so try to handle matters properly the first time around.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some frequently asked questions associated with warrants.

1. What's the Difference Between a Bench Warrant and a FTA Warrant?

Some people may have a failure to appear (FTA) warrant issued for their arrest. The FTA warrant is a type of bench warrant that is issued when a person has failed to appear in court or before a judge when subpoenaed or scheduled to do so.

Failing to appear is a punishable offense, and a person can be jailed for a significant amount of time-based on the type of crime or infraction they committed in addition to missing their court appointment.

The difference between a FTA warrant and a basic bench warrant is that a FTA warrant is typically issued for contempt, which is broadly defined as "anything which undermines the operations and decorum of a court." Some common examples of contempt include swearing at a judge, coming to court intoxicated, disobeying a court order, or failing to show up to court when required. Because of the broad discretion of the judge who is issuing a contempt charge, the maximum sentence is often very limited. In contrast to basic bench warrants, contempt charges can be more specific, and in some states the charges result in a lengthier maximum sentence.

2. Is a Bench Warrant Avoidable?

The short answer is yes, but because it's easy to be the subject of a warrant for a long time without knowing, some people may not realize that they've done something to earn a warrant.

Typically, a judge's 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 made 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 a police officer.

3. What Happens When You Ignore a Bench Warrant?

Ignoring a bench warrant will have the same consequences as ignoring an arrest warrant. Ultimately, you will be taken into custody. It is best to address warrants immediately to decrease the likelihood of experiencing complications and increased legal fees.

4. How Long Does It Take for a Warrant to Show up in the System?

A warrant will show up in the system within a few hours. Warrants must be approved and signed to become active. Once that process is complete the subject of a warrant can be arrested.

5. What Happens If You Have a Bench Warrant in Another State?

According to this article from CriminalDefenseLawyer.com, if you are the subject of a warrant for a misdemeanor, "most states will allow a local attorney hired by an out-of-state defendant to handle the case. Then, the defendant does not have to appear in court. The attorney stands in for the defendant at every step of the court proceedings, though the defendant will have to serve any sentence imposed. Local counsel can (and should) also be hired in felony cases, but the defendant may still have to appear in court or post bail."

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: I have a bench warrant because I missed my court date. Can I pay a bail bonds company to keep me out of jail and get me a new court date?

Answer: Generally, you will have to stand in front of a Judge to get a new court date.

Question: If a bench warrant is issued in WA state, but a person now resides in FL, can this person get arrested in FL, or is it only applies to WA state?

Answer: It all depends on what the warrant is for.

Question: I found out I had a warrant for my arrest and a $10,000 bail, so I went to the police station to turn myself in. They gave me a new court date instead. What happens now?

Answer: Now you make your court date - DO NOT MISS THIS!!!

Question: I was told I had a warrant by the constable, but no one knows anything about it, when I called DA's office they said to come talk to them, are they going to arrest me?

Answer: More than likely yes, they will do the whole booking procedure and then get you in front of a Judge. It shouldn't take a long, time but be prepared for a few hours at least

Question: If I have a warrant, will the county clerk advise me immediately or not say anything at all?

Answer: More than likely, they will not advise you.

Question: how do I find out what the bench warrant on my son is for?

Answer: The courts will have record of it. FOIA it.

Question: I just found out that I have a bench warrant. What should I do?

Answer: Call the court house or county clerk's office and ask what steps you need to take to resolve it.

Question: Can you buy yourself out of a bench warrant?

Answer: Well if the bench warrant is due to past due fines - then I guess the answer would be yes. Just pay them and it's done.

Question: Who do you talk to when you call the courthouse to see if you have a warrant?

Answer: You ask for the County clerk, he/she will direct you to the person you need to speak with.

Question: If I have a bench warrant in one county, would it show up in a different county?

Answer: Generally, yes.

Question: What does it mean if I have received a warrant alert for my arrest, but when I looked it up there was no record of it?

Answer: More than likely it is not going to be in a public forum - you'll have to call the court house to find out.

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