Certain circumstances in your life may require you to appear in a courtroom. For example, you may have to appear in court if you:
- Get a traffic ticket;
- Commit a crime;
- Testify as a witness in a court case; or
- Are sued by another person in a lawsuit; or
- Are called for jury duty.
Usually, the situation calls for you to appear in court at a scheduled date and time. For example, if you are given a traffic ticket, usually that ticket includes a “court date,” which tells you when you are expected to come to court. If you miss your appointed court date, then the court charges you with Failure to Appear In Court. This is considered a criminal offense that can result in criminal charges.
If you fail to show up for your appointed court date, then the court charges you with Failure to Appear. Depending on the state you live in, this criminal offense can be either a misdemeanor offense or a felony offense.
In addition to the failure to appear charge, you may also face additional consequences, such as:
- A bench warrant for your arrest;
- Jail time;
- Fines; or
- Suspension or revocation of your driver’s license.
Bench warrants are generally used to arrest a person for violating court rules and being in contempt of court. This type of warrant allows the police to arrest you and bring you before the court to answer contempt charges; either way, you don’t want one issued in your name.
Depending on the circumstances surrounding your appointed court date (for instance, if you are involved in a lawsuit against another party), the judge may dismiss your case or automatically rule in favor of the other party if you fail to appear for court when you’re supposed to.
You must have proper notice of your court appointment. Many times, you’ll either receive notice by certified mail or by in-hand delivery. If the court determines that you had proper notice of your court date, and you intentionally did not come to court, you can face charges of failure to appear.
At the hearing for your failure to appear charge, you will have an opportunity to present the judge with your reason for not coming to court on your appointed trial or court date. The court will not allow just any reason, but there are some reasons that may be valid in the eyes of the court, such as:
- Not having proper notice of your court date;
- You have a previously scheduled court appearance;
- You have a serious illness or accident;
- A natural disaster (like a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, etc.); or
- A death in your family.
Usually if one of these circumstances occurs, the court is more likely to look favorably upon your failure to appear. However, you will want to make sure you keep a close eye on all your subsequent court dates (if you have to come to court multiple times). You do not want to make a habit of failing to show up for your scheduled court dates.
Generally there are three main legal documents that may require you to appear in court: a citation, a summons, or a subpoena.
Citations are usually given by law enforcement officers during a traffic stop for violating a traffic law. The citation (or, as some may call it, the traffic ticket) will list the date, time, and location of your appointed court date. If you pay the fine before the appointed court date, you may not have to go to court on your scheduled day.
However, you may choose to go to court on your scheduled date for a few reasons. You may decide to plead guilty to the charge, plead guilty and request a reduction of the fine, or you may choose to plead not guilty and request a trial on the charges.
If you are a defendant in a criminal case or a party in a civil lawsuit, you may receive a summons for a trial date, which lists the date, time, and location for the hearing. A summons is an important legal document, and you are required to respond to it and appear in court on the appointed date. If you fail to respond or appear in court, you may lose your court case (in a civil matter) or face additional charges (in a criminal matter). Summonses are also issued for jury duty, and you must appear as those require, as well. If you fail to appear for jury duty, you can also face jail time or fines.
Subpoenas are usually sent to people who appear in court as witnesses, and not as an actual party in the matter. The subpoena requires the witness to go to court on a specific day and time (much like the other documents, you have a set court date). If you do not appear in court as the subpoena requires, you may face civil or criminal contempt of court charges, fines, or even jail time (even if you were just going to testify as a witness).
When you appear in court, there are certain rules you must follow. Remember that appearing in court is important, and should be treated with respect. The specific rules of a court may be different from state to state (as well as from county to county within the same state), but there are general rules that apply across the board.
These rules include:
- Dress appropriately. Wear shoes and clean and neat clothing. This may be your first impression before the judge and you want to make a good impression and appear respectful;
- Put your cell phone on silent or vibrate, or turn it off completely;
- No eating or drinking;
- Refrain from chewing gum;
- Cameras are not allowed in the courtroom;
- No weapons allowed in the courtroom; and
- Silence in court unless you are addressing the court/judge.
These rules may seem like common sense, but it is important to keep in mind that many of the rules are in place to keep the work of the court running as smoothly as possible, and keep the courtroom a special place of decorum. It may sound silly to remind you to wear shoes and clean clothing, but coming to court in flip-flops and dirty jeans can be perceived as disrespectful towards the court.
If you are facing criminal charges, then it is in your best interests to consult a criminal defense attorney. If you are not sure how to respond to a citation or other document demanding a required court appearance, your attorney can help you decide the best response. The attorney can also help you prepare for your court date as well as advise you about consequences of a failure to appear in court.
If you have already failed to appear once, your attorney can help you navigate the legal system and help you decide the best way to proceed. If you have a valid reason for not showing up for your court date, your attorney can also help you prepare the best possible defense. It is in your best interests to have a qualified attorney by your side in the process.