A lot of elements are required for the legal system to function as it should in the state of Florida and elsewhere. Perhaps the most basic element is that the people involved need to show up. What happens when you’re summoned to court for a specific date and time and then fail to appear?
The answer is that the judge issues a bench warrant for your arrest. This is a specific type of legal action with practical consequences that can range 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 key distinction between this and a bench warrant is where it is initiated from. Arrest warrants start with law enforcement and end with the judge. The bench warrant 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 it is initiated by the police. A bench warrant might involve criminal activity–for example, if someone charged with a felony jumped bail. But it also might be a matter for civil law–such as the failure to follow a court order to pay child support.
Of course, there are other types of warrants that can be issued–notably a search warrant when the police have probable cause that evidence may be at a certain 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 any time a person fails to show in court for any reason. Practically speaking, here are some common reasons why this might occur:
- A person summoned regarding parking ticket violations simply 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 not updated the court with the new address. They simply never see the summons and miss their court appearance as a result.
- As noted above, 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 either on bail or on their own recognizance. The charged person is essentially trusted by the court 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 the state of 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 what the penalties might be.
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–along with any other misdemeanors– faces “only” a potential of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. And they still must pay 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 is going to 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 you are pulled over by a police officer 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 show up 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 may 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. If you are collecting any type of government benefits, from Social Security to food stamps, you can find yourself ineligible.
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 enough and the database 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. There are ways a bench warrant can be taken care of 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 the reason for your absence. Be aware though 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 then 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 quite reasonable. A bench warrant lawyer can talk to the judge and explain if you simply 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 ever guarantee that a bench warrant will be cleared. What we can say is 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 gets properly presented, the judge can both 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 right away at (904) 701-0591 or get in touch online and let’s get to work on trying to set your record straight.