How to find, clear a bench warrant, arrest warrant or failure to appear in court (2019)
If you missed a court hearing you were ordered to attend or have other reason to believe a bench warrant or arrest warrant has been issued, you need to consult an attorney and take care of it immediately to get the warrant lifted.
Judges issue bench warrants most often for failure to appear, unpaid fines, probation violations and disobeying court orders. Once you have an active bench warrant, it does not expire until you clear the warrant or die.
Police can arrest you at any time, even for out of state warrants. Warrants cause problems in traffic stops, airport security, immigration checks, accidents or even police tip offs. You have to worry about being arrested and taken to jail at any time.
How to find out if you have a warrant
Warrants are issued by city, county, state and federal court judges. Each state has a state-wide warrant database that law enforcement check for active warrants during stops. Federal warrants are maintained in a separate federal court database.
While many websites offer warrant searches, their information is often very inaccurate. The only way to find out if someone has a warrant with 100% accuracy is to do an active warrant search in the source government databases as explained below.
How to check if you have a warrant:
Hire an attorney. This is the best way to check if you have a warrant since a bench warrant attorney can access all court databases and resolve the cause of the warrant while minimizing the penalties to you.
Check the county court or Sheriff’s records online. Many courts and Sheriff’s departments offer public searches of their database online or via phone. These are very accurate although warrants may be hidden from public record searches in domestic violence, family law and juvenile cases.
Contact your U.S. District Court. For a Federal warrant search you’ll need to check with your Federal District Court.
Call a bail bondsman. Most warrants will require posting a bond and bail bondsmen are often able to do a free warrant search.
Contact your police department. Police will check for warrants for free, but you risk triggering an arrest attempt.
If you call courts or law enforcement to check if you have a warrant, keep in mind they may be able to determine your location via the phone used.
What is a bench warrant?
A bench warrant is a warrant for arrest issued by a judge in a criminal or civil case for failure to appear in court (“FTA”), violating probation or failure to obey any court order such as paying a fine. Bench warrants can also be issued if you’re indicted by a grand jury.
Failure to appear criminal charge
Suspension of your drivers’ license
Fines, increased and/or forfeited bail
When a bench warrant is issued, your name is added to the statewide computer system used by all law enforcement. Police usually don’t immediately come to find you for a bench warrant. However, if you have an active bench warrant during any police stop, you may be arrested and held in jail to appear in front of the court.
Bail for a bench warrant
Once you’re in custody, you’ll have to post a bail bond before you can be released and given a new court date. Usually the bail for a failure to appear FTA warrant is high enough to pay off the court fines and costs both for the original matter and the FTA.
If you previously posted bail for the missed court date, that bail is forfeited unless your criminal attorney can persuade the judge otherwise. A judge may let you get the bail back or credit it towards fines if you have a compelling reason why you missed the court date.
What is an arrest warrant?
An arrest warrant is a judge’s court order issued at the request of law enforcement authorizing your arrest and detention. The request must include a sworn affidavit with sufficient evidence showing probable cause that you committed a specific crime.
Arrest warrants trigger immediate law enforcement attempts to locate and arrest you. An arrest warrant is typically required for a misdemeanor crime if a law enforcement officer did not witness the offense. If police have probable cause that you committed a felony crime, they can usually arrest you without an arrest warrant.
How to clear a bench warrant
You can recall or clear a bench warrant by appearing in court to resolve the reason the judge issued it. Your warrant attorney may be able to “quash” or clear the warrant without you appearing for misdemeanors and infractions. Felony charges require your appearance.
Consult an attorney to review the best way to get a bench warrant dropped without going to jail. If you cannot pay an attorney and meet the low income requirement, a Public Defender may be able to get rid of a bench warrant for a low cost.
To be released after a bench warrant arrest or court appearance on the warrant:
New bail must be set and paid for release or the judge convinced to release you on your own recognizance (also known as an “O.R. release”).
The court will set a new court date if you missed an arraignment or court date.
You may also be facing a misdemeanor or felony failure to appear charge with penalties.
If the bench warrant was issued for failure to appear at your arraignment on a criminal charge, you will appear in front of the issuing judge. Although in some jurisdictions, you can request appearing before any judge in the same county for setting the bail.
If you had failed to appear for sentencing on your case, you will be required to appear in front of the judge who issued the bench warrant to get it lifted or removed.
Defenses for failing to appear or follow a court order
Avoiding criminal charges, large fines and bail bond requirements are key when appearing to clear a warrant. Your attorney can make a case to the judge that you shouldn’t be punished and you should be released on your own recognizance or with a low bail.
Common excuses given for failure to appear in court or not obeying a court order:
You did not miss the date on purpose. You were unaware of the court date because you never received a notice to appear in the mail (wrong address, never received, …)
Did not intend to evade the court. This is an important element to prevent a criminal charge for failure to appear. The Prosecutor must show you were attempting to evade the court.
Did not know charges were filed or thought they were dismissed.
Completed probation conditions and did not realize you had to appear in court.
Missed a drug test due to an accident, illness or emergency.
You did not sign an agreement to appear in court.
Failure to appear in court penalties
Judges manage packed court dockets and must comply with an array of judicial rules, legal process and speedy trial rights. Juggling this is challenging and judges dislike people not showing up when ordered as that can disrupt the function of their court.
Failure to appear in court is considered a contempt of court offense that results in a bench warrant, potential criminal charges, fines and heightened bail requirements.
Even traffic tickets and minor criminal charges cause a notice or summons to be sent to you. This notice to appear or summons is actually a court order that must be obeyed.
What happens if I fail to appear in court:
You can be charged with a crime and fined. Judges can charge you with contempt of court and/or a failure to appear crime such as 1320 pc. These crimes have their own additional fines and jail sentences.
A bench warrant is issued directing police to arrest you and bring you before the court. You can he held in jail without bail until the court schedules a hearing to address your failure to appear warrant.
Your driver’s license may be suspended. Many states allow judges to order suspension of your license for failure to appear.
Your bond may be revoked or new bail conditions imposed. If you were not required to post a bond previously, you may now be required to post a bail bond. You may also forfeit a prior bond and have to post a new, higher bail to qualify for release. The judge can even eliminate bail altogether and require you stay in jail until your case is complete.
Automatic guilty verdict. You can be automatically convicted of some charges, such as traffic infractions, if you fail to appear in court.
In most jurisdictions, defendants are subject to different rules than jurors or a witness subpoenaed to testify. For jurors and witnesses, courts will typically issue a failure to appear notice before resorting to issuing a bench warrant.
How long does a bench warrant last?
Bench warrants do not expire and there is no statute of limitations for police arrest for a bench warrant. The warrant will remain in effect until either: (1) the subject dies or (2) the warrant is cleared or “quashed” by appearing in court in front of the judge.
Our lawyers have seen clients arrested on warrants over 40 years old. Although old cases can be dismissed in many instances if the defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated. See statute of limitations.
How long does it take for a warrant to be issued?
A bench warrant is issued within a few days, depending on the court. Once issued, you’ll usually get notified of the bench warrant served via mail within 2 weeks. Once an arrest warrant is issued, police usually attempt to serve the warrant in person within 10 days.
While warrants show up in the system within just a few days, arrest warrants are not always served right away for a many reasons including an inability to locate the defendant. There are millions of outstanding arrest warrants in the United States. California alone has over 680,000 outstanding arrest warrants.
What problems do warrants cause?
Outstanding warrants need to be resolved. Besides worrying that you may be arrested at any time, warrants can cause a variety of problems including:
1) Warrants appear on background checks
Background checks are common for employers, insurance policies, professional license qualification and even admissions to universities. An outstanding warrant can automatically disqualify you. Even for a bench warrant out of state.
2) DMV can suspend driving privileges
Most states authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to suspend or refuse to renew a drivers’ license until a warrant is cleared. For example, in California 40509.5 vc allows the state to put a hold on a person’s drivers’ license and suspend driving privileges until a warrant and fines are resolved with the court.
3) Problems with air travel or entering the U.S. border
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) accesses the FBI NCIC database which has the criminal history and “Wanted Persons” warrant information for all states. CBP screens flight manifests for international flights to flag hits with the NCIC database making you potentially a target for arrest at any U.S. border crossing or airline flight.
4) Immigration applications
Outstanding arrest warrants can cause problems for any non-U.S. citizens trying to enter the U.S. or apply for immigration visas. The embassies and the Department of State access the NCIC database as well and will see outstanding warrants.
5) Denial of Social Security benefits
The Social Security Act prohibits paying benefits to anyone with an outstanding warrant for a felony crime under the Fugitive Enforcement Program.
Other types of warrants
A search warrant is an order signed by a judge authorizing the search of a specific location for evidence of a crime. Law enforcement obtain search warrants by convincing a neutral judge of probable cause of criminal activity at the location to be searched or that evidence of a crime may be found there.
Police usually establish probable cause with the judge by submitting sworn affidavits explaining the evidence, witness statements and reasons for the warrant. The occupant is not present, nor even usually aware, when the warrant is being issued and cannot contest whether probable cause exists before issued.
The Supreme Court ruled that in most instances the 4th Amendment requires establishing probable cause with a neutral judge before searching private property.
There are six major exceptions where police may search without a warrant:
Consent search: When the person in control of the premises voluntarily consents to the search.
The Plain View Doctrine: Police may search or seize evidence in plain view when the officer is legitimately in the area.
Search incident to arrest (SITA): Police have the right to search someone being lawfully arrested and the area in their “wingspan” or immediate control.
Automobile exception: If police have probable cause to believe any vehicle (car, boat, RV, truck) contains evidence of a crime, they can search those areas that may contain the type of evidence suspected to be present.
Emergencies/Hot pursuit: If a suspect enters private property while police are pursuing them, police can enter and search that property without a warrant, even if the suspect is not connected with the property owner. Police can also seize, without warrant, evidence that may easily be destroyed, moved or made to vanish before a warrant can be issued.
Stop and Frisk: Police can stop and search a suspect if there is a reasonable suspicion of a criminal act and the officer can explain facts that created that suspicion.
A Capias warrant is a court issued detention order for either payment of fines or to compel you to make your scheduled court appearance. Capias warrants can be used in criminal, traffic, civil and family law courts.
A “Capias pro fine” warrant is issued when someone loses a judgement and doesn’t pay the restitution ordered by the court.
After a capias warrant is issued, your name is added to the law enforcement warrant database. Police usually do not immediately come to find you, but you can be detained any time police interact with you.
Once arrested, you’ll usually have to post bail before you can be released and given a new court date. If you previously posted bail, that bail is forfeited unless your criminal defense lawyer persuade the judge otherwise.
Writ of Bodily Attachment
A writ of bodily attachment (also referred to as “body attachment warrant” or “writ of body attachment”) is a court ordered warrant for civil arrest for civil contempt. Body attachment warrants are usually issued for failure to fulfill a civil court order.
The writ of bodily attachment is most commonly ordered for:
Failure to appear when ordered in civil court.
Failure to pay alimony or child support.
Failure to obey any court order, including payment of fines.
A Ramey warrant (or “pre-complaint warrant”) is an arrest warrant where police show probable cause to arrest directly to the judge without submitting the case to the DA. This allows police to obtain a warrant quicker and before there is sufficient evidence for a DA to file charges.
Arrest warrants are usually issued after police submit a report to the district attorney. If the DA finds sufficient evidence to file a case, they will ask a judge to issue a warrant. A Ramey warrant allows police to try and convince a judge without a DA’s approval.
Police may pursue a Ramey warrant (named after People v. Ramey) for several reasons including: (1) a need for speed, (2) the DA keeps rejecting the case for lack of evidence, or (3) the officer hopes to get sufficient evidence by bringing the suspect in for questioning.
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program estimates that 10,554,985 arrests were made throughout the entire United States in 2017 due to arrest warrants, bench warrants and other law enforcement activity. (Note: the UCR Program does not include data on citations for traffic violations.) The arrests broke down as follows: (1)
|Type of Crime||Number of Arrests|
|DUI and alcohol crimes||1,564,834|
|All other offenses||3,440,766|
Some other UCR arrest statistics for 2017 include:
The overall arrest rate was 3,251 arrests per 100,000 inhabitants. (2)
The arrest rate for violent crime was 161 per 100,000 inhabitants.
The arrest rate for property crime was 389 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Violent crime arrests increased 0.8% in 2017 vs 2016.
Property crime arrests decreased 6.7% vs 2016. (3)
Juvenile arrests declined 4.5% in 2017 vs 2016. Adult arrests decreased 0.5%.
73% of those arrested were male. They accounted for 79% of those arrested for violent crime and 64% of those arrested for property crime. (4)
69% of those arrested were White, 27% African American, 4% other races. (5)
Federal authorities prioritize federal felony warrants
Federal law enforcement prioritize serving federal felony arrest warrants more urgently than than state, local and non-felony warrants. The U.S. Marshals Service reported the following time to serve or “clear” a warrant in fiscal year ending 9/30/06: (6)
73,457 federal felony arrest warrants with a median clearance time of 12 days.
71,636 state or local arrest warrants with a median clearance time of 24 days.
12,936 non-felony federal warrants with a median clearance time of 381 days.
This information does not constitute legal advice and is not a substitute for individual case consultation and research. No representations are made as to the accuracy of this information and appropriate legal counsel should be consulted before taking any actions. Contact us for a Free consultation regarding your specific case and facts and to see if Chudnovsky Law is the best criminal attorney for you.
Last updated 10.19.19