WHAT HAPPENS IF I MISS MY COURT DATE?
People miss court dates all the time. It can happen for good reasons, but can also have serious consequences if it's not dealt with correctly. What happens when you miss a court date depends on the some different things so I've broken it down below to make it more understandable. Please note that these answers refer to Georgia law and court procedures.
Missing Court for a Traffic Citation
When you're charged with a traffic offense, the police usually just give you a piece of paper with your charges and a court date (often called a citation or ticket). When you signed the citation for the officer, this was your promise to appear in court on that date. They gave you a copy of the citation so you knew when the court date would be. But life happens, and for some reason you didn't go. What now? It's possible that the clerk of that court entered a "failure to appear" (FTA) into their system. Once there is an FTA listed in their system, you should get a notice in the mail that you missed court. You may have to pay a fine in order to get a new court date. The first thing you should do if you missed court on a traffic citation is to call the clerk of the court listed on the citation and ask how to resolve the FTA. Don't wait to get a new notice in the mail, call them as soon as you realize you have missed court. It is likely you will have to go to court in person to get this resolved and possibly explain to the judge why you missed court. People are also surprised that you can have your license suspended if you fail to come to court on traffic ticket. Many times people are unaware that their license has been suspended due to a missed court date (even though they are supposed to receive notice by mail). If they are pulled over by the police after missing court, they can end up with additional charges of driving on suspended license. The license suspension will remain in place until you resolve the FTA. Many people are also afraid to go to court once they find out they have an FTA, because they are afraid they will be arrested and taken to jail. Being arrested in court for an FTA is not very common on traffic offenses, but it can happen. If you are concerned that you may be arrested, contact an attorney to help you through the process.
Missing Court for a Misdemeanor or Felony
And, what is a bench warrant?
If you were charged with a crime that resulted in you being arrested and paying a bond (bail) to get out, the consequences for missing court can be much more severe. Often times, people miss court because either they never got notice of a court date in the mail, they forgot, or something happened that kept them from appearing like a medical or transportation issue. Remember, it is YOUR responsibility to keep the clerk of the court updated with your correct address. The common result of missing court in these cases is a bench warrant. This means that the prosecutor requests that the judge issue a warrant for your arrest due to missing court, and the judge agrees. The reason it is called a "bench" warrant is that it is issued from the judge sitting in open court, and where the judge sits is called "the bench." In terms of how it affects you, it is similar an arrest warrant. Once the bench warrant is issued, law enforcement is notified through their electronic systems that there is an active warrant for your arrest. This can mean either law enforcement can come to your work or home to arrest you, or you may be arrested the next time you are stopped for a traffic offense. But unlike an arrest warrant, you normally cannot pay a bond to get out on a bench warrant. If you are arrested under the bench warrant, some judges require you to appear in court before they will lift the warrant and allow you to be released. How quickly you can get in front of the judge will depend on lots of things, including whether you have a lawyer and how soon you can schedule your appearance with the judge.
What can I do if I missed court and now I have a bench warrant?
You should call an attorney immediately to help you handle the bench warrant. The attorney may be able to arrange what we sometimes call a "walk-in." This is where you voluntarily come to court with the lawyer to explain why you missed court and the judge lifts the bench warrant. If there is a reasonable excuse for missing court, and you acted quickly to correct your mistake, judges can be understanding and you can avoid being arrested. If you are already in custody due to a bench warrant, a lawyer can help get you in front of the judge quickly and represent you in getting the bench warrant lifted to allow for your release. If you missed court and got a bench warrant, do not assume that you can avoid court until the prosecutor agrees to resolve your case, or until the case just "goes away." Criminal cases do not just "go away" if you avoid dealing with them, and ignoring the problem usually makes it worse. The longer the bench warrant is active, the tougher the judge will be on you for avoiding court, and the tougher the prosecutors may be as well. And prosecutors don't normally negotiate on cases that are in bench warrant status. That means you need to "walk-in" or be in custody before your case can be resolved. In some cases, people miss court because they were in custody in another county. When this happens, a lawyer may be able to get the bench warrant lifted even without you there, since being in custody elsewhere excuses you from coming to court and the bench warrant was erroneously issued.
You can see why it's important to stay informed about your court case, never miss court, and always contact an attorney to help you. Call me at 404-904-2862 and we can talk about what options you have for your case.