Many elements are required for the legal system to function as it should in Florida and elsewhere. Perhaps the most essential element is that the people involved must show up. What happens when you’re summoned to court for a specific date and time and fail to appear?
The answer is that the judge issues a bench warrant for your arrest. This is a specific legal action with practical consequences ranging from a fine to prison time.
Bench Warrant vs. Arrest Warrant
The best way to understand how a bench warrant works is to compare and contrast it to another common form of warrant: the arrest warrant.
In the case of an arrest warrant, police go to the judge upon being convinced they have probable cause that an individual is guilty of a crime. The judge issues the warrant for that person’s arrest.
The critical distinction between this and a bench warrant is where it originated. Arrest warrants start with law enforcement and end with the judge. The bench warrants both starts and ends with the judge. The magistrate issues the warrant directly from the bench, thus giving this legal mechanism its name.
Another important distinction is that an arrest warrant will, by definition, involve criminal activity because the police initiate it. A bench warrant might involve criminal activity–for example, if someone charged with a felony jumped bail. But it also might be a matter of civil law–such as the failure to follow a court order to pay child support.
Of course, other types of warrants can be issued–notably a search warrant when the police have probable cause that evidence may be at a particular location. But bench warrants and arrest warrants are unique in that they have the actual apprehension of someone as their endgame.
Reasons a Bench Warrant Would Be Issued
Strictly speaking, a bench warrant is issued whenever a person fails to appear in court. Practically speaking, here are some common reasons why this might occur:
- A person summoned regarding parking ticket violations forgot about their court date.
- Two ex-spouses are summoned to meet in court to settle a dispute over child custody. One of the spouses has recently moved and has not updated the court with the new address. They never see the summons and miss their court appearance as a result.
- As noted, an ex-spouse fails to pay child support or violates a restraining order. These actions directly contradict previous court orders, so the judge can immediately issue the warrant.
- Someone is criminally charged but released on bail or their recognizance. The court essentially trusts the charged person to appear for their arraignment and trial. Failure to do so results in a bench warrant.
Consequences of a Bench Warrant
The immediate consequence of a bench warrant is that you are now guilty of a second offense. Failure To Appear (FTA) is a violation in and of itself in Florida.
It matters not whether the violation was six unpaid parking tickets or first-degree burglary. The FTA is still added as a charged offense. But the reason for your initial court appearance is still a factor in determining the penalties.
The person charged with burglary, who bailed on a felony charge, could face five years in prison just for an FTA . That’s before they are potentially convicted and sentenced for the original crime. The parking ticket absconder and any other misdemeanors face “only” a potential of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. And they still must pay for the parking tickets.
Having said all that, it would be a mistake to think that everyone who forgets about a court date for a misdemeanor will spend a year behind bars. Or even that they will be arrested right away. Your bench warrant will go immediately into the Duval County database. The police may or may not act on it.
What will happen is that now, if a police officer pulls you over for doing a rolling stop through the stop sign in your subdivision, they will see the bench warrant in your record. If you get into a fender bender in traffic on the I-295 Beltway and police appear at the scene, that bench warrant will appear on your record. Even calling 911 for a legitimate emergency could bring you to the attention of the authorities. Any of the above circumstances, among many others, could result in your arrest.
If you interview for a job, your FTA violation will appear in any background check. This can also inhibit your ability to rent an apartment or buy property. You can find yourself ineligible if you are collecting any government benefits, from Social Security to food stamps.
Ultimately, if you are charged with an FTA and fail to address it, you’ll have to live in uncertainty. Maybe your original violation was minor, and the database is backlogged enough that the police will never get to you. Or maybe they will. There is absolutely no guarantee.
How to Clear a Bench Warrant in Florida
Here’s the good news–you can get this cleaned up. A bench warrant can be removed and cleared from your record entirely. You need to turn yourself into one of three places.
The first option is to go directly to the judge and explain your absence. Be aware that even in the most benign circumstances–missing a misdemeanor hearing because you had to take your child to the emergency room–getting the warrant expunged this way will require at least one hearing that you will be obligated to attend in person. That’s in addition to the hearing for the original violation that needs rescheduling.
You can also go to the police, who will inform the judge. You may be held in jail overnight. Persons out on bail might choose to go to their bail bondsman.
The third option is to go to a who can file a Motion to Surrender on your behalf.
Everyone’s reason for missing their court date is different, and, as we’ve seen from the examples above, some are pretty reasonable. A bench warrant lawyer can talk to the judge and explain if you forgot about the appearance and work to get it rescheduled. If the original summons went to the wrong address, your attorney can explain that to the judge.
The judge holds the final decision in their own hands, so no lawyer can guarantee that a bench warrant will be cleared. We can say that there are judges who will understand that not every Failure To Appear is the result of malicious contempt for the rule of law. So long as your case is presented correctly, the judge can reschedule the original hearing and dismiss the bench warrant entirely.
Bench warrants are serious business, no matter the purpose of the original hearing or how valid your reason might be for having missed it. Don’t let the outstanding warrant loom over your head when a lawyer from the Law Offices of Jason K.S. Porter, P.A. can work with you on a constructive resolution. Call us immediately at (904) 701-0591 or get in touch online, and let’s work on setting your record straight.