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What happens if you miss a court date? How to handle an FTA
If you miss a required court date, the judge and/or the prosecutor can take action against you. A failure to appear (FTA) could result in a judge issuing a bench warrant, the filing of criminal charges, and/or the suspension of your driver’s license.
If a judge issues a bench warrant, the warrant authorizes law enforcement to arrest you and bring you to court.
Note that an FTA can occur in both criminal court (for example, when you are facing criminal charges) and civil court (for example, if you were subpoenaed or otherwise ordered to appear).
1. What happens with a failure to appear?
The specific consequences for a missed court date will largely depend on the facts of your case. But in general, the FTA can result in the following actions:
the court can issue a bench warrant for your arrest,
a prosecutor can file criminal charges against you (either felony charges or misdemeanor charges),1 and/or
the DMV can suspend your driving privileges.2
Example: A police officer stops Lisa for speeding and issues her a traffic ticket. Lisa is obligated to appear in court for the ticket in two weeks.
Lisa forgets about the court appearance. The judge hearing the case issues a bench warrant for the no show. Police can now lawfully arrest Lisa under the terms of the warrant.
According to the laws of the state in which Lisa resides, it is a criminal offense if a person fails to appear for an infraction. A prosecutor can now charge Lisa with a misdemeanor and initiate a criminal case against her.
In addition, the DMV of Lisa’s state receives notice from the court that Lisa missed her court date. The DMV can respond by suspending Lisa’s driver’s license.
Note that you are typically required to appear in court when you:
make a written promise to appear (for example, by signing a traffic ticket),
receive a subpoena to appear, and/or
a judge orders you to appear.
2. What happens with a bench warrant?
A bench warrant authorizes a police officer to arrest you and bring you directly to court.3
If a judge issued a bench warrant for your arrest, you can try contacting the court that issued the warrant. The clerk of the court may be able to issue a new court date so that you can avoid an arrest.
If the clerk cannot issue a new court appearance, you may have to:
turn yourself in, or
contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.
In either event, you will have to appear at a court hearing where you:
explain the reason why there was a missed court date, and
try to cancel or recall any bench warrant that was issued.
At the completion of the hearing, the judge has the authority to either:
recall your warrant, or
impose jail time.
3. Will a judge ever excuse you for missing a court date?
The answer depends on the specific reason why you missed your court appearance.
you failed to appear because of a medical emergency,
your FTA was not on purpose or you did not intend to evade the court process, or
you never made a written promise to appear in court.
Note, though, that a judge will likely not excuse a missed court appearance if you:
did not feel like going to court,
ignored a traffic ticket or thought a criminal case/criminal offense would go away, and/or
believed you were innocent of any underlying legal issues.
4. What should you do if you think you are going to miss a court date?
If there is a ticket for a court appearance (for example, in the case of a traffic stop), or court documents requesting your appearance, they may provide information on what steps to take if you need to reschedule a court date.
You can also try to contact the court where you are scheduled to appear. The clerk might be able to instruct you on what you can do to avoid a failure to appear charge.
You also always have the option to contact an attorney, criminal defense lawyer, or law firm/law office for legal help.
An attorney can provide legal advice on what you should do and even represent you in court.
See Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition – “Bench warrant.” Note that bench warrants are common in FTA cases and when there is a failure to make childcare payments.
About the Author
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.