The term warrant refers to an order that grants law enforcement the authorization to take a particular action. There are many different types of warrants, such as search warrants, arrest warrants, and bench warrants. The latter type of warrant is not used to arrest a person accused of a crime, but rather a person who is being accused of violating a rule of the court. Generally, a judge will issue a bench warrant while the court is in session and without any law enforcement prompting them.
The name bench warrant comes from the fact that the judge is issuing the warrant from the courtroom bench, for violating the rules of the court. In a bench warrant, the judge authorizes law enforcement the authority to make an arrest from the bench, and not from the judge’s chambers. A bench warrant is generally issued for failure to appear in court, or failure to appear for jury duty.
Additionally, a bench warrant may be either a criminal or a civil warrant. It is important to note that a bench warrant is only used to arrest a person for being in contempt, whereas an arrest warrant is issued to arrest a person who is suspected in a crime.
If a defendant fails to appear at their court hearing, the judge will likely find them to be in contempt of court. Contempt of court is defined as any wilful disobedience or disregard of a court order, and includes misconduct in the presence of court. It also includes any action that interferes with a judge’s ability to administer justice, or behavior that insults the court.
How Is a Bench Warrant Issued? Is a Bench Warrant Only Used for Criminal Cases?
Once a person has been found to be in contempt of court, and before the judge issues the bench warrant, the judge will cite the reason or reasons why the person is being held in contempt of court. As previously mentioned, failing to appear in court is not the only reason why a bench warrant may be issued.
A bench warrant may also be issued for the following reasons:
- Failure to appear for jury duty;
- Failure to appear in court to testify after being subpoenaed to do so;
- Failure to follow a restraining order;
- Denial of child visitation rights; and
- Failure to make child support payments according to a court ruling to do so.
A judge may issue either a civil or a criminal bench warrant. A civil bench warrant may be issued for someone who has defaulted on a judgment. Other reasons for the issuing of a bench warrant may include but not be limited to:
- Failing to pay required fines;
- Violating probation requirements;
- Failing to appear for a court ordered educational program;
- Committing a crime while out on bail; and
- Otherwise failing to comply with the conditions of bail.
What Happens After a Person Is Arrested Through a Bench Warrant? Are There Any Defenses to Being Held in Contempt of Court?
Once the person for whom the warrant was issued has been arrested, the court case then proceeds like any other. The defendant will need to prove that they are not actually in contempt of court. When failure to appear in court is involved, the judge may dismiss the case under very specific circumstances. An example of this would be if a person is involved in a lawsuit with another party, and they miss their appointed court date. The judge may dismiss the case, or automatically rule in favor of the other party.
All defendants must be given proper notice of their court dates and hearings. This could be through certified mail, or via in-hand delivery by a process server. If the court determines that a person received proper notice of their court date, and they intentionally did not appear, they may face charges of failure to appear.
As mentioned above, one such charge for failure to appear is being held in contempt of court. At the hearing for failure to appear charges, the defendant will have the opportunity to explain to the judge why they did not appear, or otherwise provide their proof that they were not in contempt of court.
One common defense is to show that they were not in court because of unforeseen circumstances. Some valid reasons for not appearing in court could include:
- Being involved in a car accident while on the way to court;
- Not having proper notice of the court date;
- The defendant has another previously scheduled court appearance;
- The defendant fell seriously ill;
- A natural disaster occurred, such as a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, etc.; or
- A death in the family.
Do I Need an Attorney For a Bench Warrant?
If you are facing a bench warrant, it is important that you contact a skilled and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you understand the charges against you, as well as your rights and any defenses that may be available to you based on the specifics of your case. Additionally, the attorney will represent you in court as needed.