A bench warrant in California is a court order issued by a judge when you fail to appear in court, comply with a court order, or meet other legal obligations. Bench warrants (also called “body attachments“) authorize police to arrest you and bring you before the court to address your noncompliance.
Bench warrants differ from arrest warrants, which are issued when there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. Instead, a bench warrant is most typically issued for:
- failing to appear for court,
- failing to pay a fine, or
- failing to obey any other court order.1
Doing any of the above makes you vulnerable to being in “contempt of court“2 and subjects you to a bench warrant as well as a possible:
- probation violation,
- county jail or California state prison sentence,
- enhanced fine, and/or
- drivers license suspension.3
To resolve a bench warrant in California, you must either appear in court voluntarily or be apprehended by law enforcement, at which point the court will address the original issue and may impose additional penalties for noncompliance.
In order to understand better when and why bench warrants go out and, more importantly how to quash them, our criminal attorneys will explain the following topics:
- 1. How do I recall and quash a California bench warrant?
- 2. What are the consequences of failing to appear (FTA)?
- 3. What are the consequences of failing to pay fines/restitution (FTP) or disobeying court orders?
- 4. How does bail work with bench warrants?
- 5. What happens if I have a bench warrant and go directly to court?
If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us.
1. How do I recall and quash a California bench warrant?
“Recalling and quashing” a bench warrant means having it cleared from the judicial system. The bottom line is that you (or sometimes your attorney) must appear in court in order to complete the process.
- fail to appear for a court appearance, or
- fail to pay a fine in connection with a misdemeanor offense,
your defense attorney may be able to have the warrant recalled and quashed in your absence.
If, however, you fail to obey a court order that arises out of a felony case, you must be present to clear your warrant.
What a bench warrant does
A bench warrant authorizes law enforcement officers to arrest you and bring you directly to court.4 Once you are in court, the judge will either 1) release you with a warning, or 2) incarcerate you, depending on:
- your criminal history,
- the circumstances that led to the warrant, and
- your flight risk.
If you fail to appear for your arraignment, the arresting officer will bring you before the judge who issued your warrant. However, upon your request, the officer could alternatively bring you before any judge in the issuing county (or in the county where you were arrested) for the purpose of setting bail.5
If you fail to appear for your sentencing, you must appear before the judge who issued your warrant.6 This remains the case regardless of where you were arrested.7
2. What are the consequences of failing to appear (FTA)?
If you fail to appear (FTA) for any scheduled court date, the judge may issue a bench warrant for your arrest.8 This is always the case if the judge specifically orders you to appear personally, even if you grant your attorney the authority to represent you in your absence.9
Witnesses and jurors are subject to different rules than defendants: If you are a witness or juror and fail to appear in response to a subpoena or summons, the court will issue you a “failure to appear” notice before it issues a bench warrant for your arrest.10
However, if the court believes that you are material to the case or that urgency dictates your immediate presence, it may first issue a bench warrant in lieu of the FTA “notice”.11
Jail and fines
If you willfully fail to appear on a scheduled court date for a misdemeanor case after you were released on your own recognizance (otherwise known as an “O.R.” release), the prosecution will additionally charge you with “failure to appear” as a misdemeanor.
Before you can be convicted of this offense, the prosecutor must prove that you intended to “evade the process of the court“. Evidence of your intent may be established if you failed to appear within 14 days of your appearance date. Under California Penal Code 1320, if convicted, you face
- a maximum $1,000 fine and
- a maximum six-month county jail sentence.12
If you are released on O.R. in a felony case (and the same facts apply), you will be additionally charged with felony “failure to appear”. Under California Penal Code 1320, if convicted, you face
- a minimum $5,000 fine and
- a county jail or state prison sentence.13
It should be noted that if your FTA involves a felony case where you posted bail, the maximum fine increases from $5,000 to $10,000.14
3. What are the consequences of failing to pay fines/restitution (FTP) or disobeying court orders?
The court will issue a bench warrant for your arrest if you willfully fail to pay court fines or restitution (FTP). However, the judge cannot penalize you for failing to pay restitution or a fine if you do not have the financial ability to pay, as long as you comply with all other court orders.15
The court may also issue a bench warrant if you fail to obey its orders. This is most typically the case following a criminal proceeding after you go on probation.
When the court becomes aware of a probation violation (which, in essence, is a failure to obey a court’s order), it may issue a bench warrant to address the situation.16
4. How does bail work with bench warrants?
Some bench warrants are “no bail” bench warrants: This means once you are arrested, you must remain in custody at least until your next court appearance.
Though most bail warrants have a bail amount attached to them. In some cases, the police can petition the judge to raise the bail amount.17
If you have posted bail on a warrant, and you subsequently fail to appear, the judge will most likely forfeit your bail and issue another bench warrant for your arrest.18
For more discussion, see our post on How long do you stay in jail for a bench warrant?
Entering a California bench warrant “in the system”
After the judge issues the warrant, the clerk directs the appropriate agency to enter your warrant into the National Crime Information Center “NCIC”.
If the agency fails to enter your warrant into the NCIC and that failure either
- prevents the bondsman from surrendering you into custody,
- prevents your arrest, or
- results in your subsequent release from custody,
the court must set aside the forfeiture and “exonerate” (cancel) your bond.19
5. What happens if I have a bench warrant and go directly to court?
Unless you are prepared to go straight from the court into custody, it is advisable to take your California criminal defense lawyer with you.
Your defense lawyer knows the most effective arguments, evidence, and steps to take to convince the judge
- to recall and quash your warrant, and
- to release you O.R. or with a reduced bail in lieu of being taken into custody.
Examples of arguments that your lawyer could present on your behalf include (but are not limited to):
- the fact that you never received a notice to appear (it was mailed to an old address, for example),
- the fact that you complied with and completed all of your probation requirements and simply did not realize that you were supposed to provide proof to the court,
- that you were under the mistaken impression that your charges had been dismissed or that you were unaware that the case was even filed, and, of course, or
- that although you share the same name with the person in the warrant, you were wrongly arrested based on mistaken identity.
Call us for help…
Our California bench warrant attorneys can assist you throughout the state, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Long Beach, Orange County, Riverside and San Bernardino. Also see our related pages on clearing California arrest warrants, challenging police search warrants, California failure to appear laws, and posting bail in California.
If you think you may have an active warrant, please see our page on conducting a California warrant search.
- See California Penal Code sections 945 and 979-984.
- California Penal Code 166.
- California Vehicle Code 13365. California Vehicle Code 13365.5.
- See California Penal Code sections 978.5-981.
- See California Penal Code sections 981-982, 984, and 1284.
- California Penal Code 1197.
- California Penal Code 1199.
- California Penal Code 853.7. There are a variety of laws that relate to FTAs, depending on whether you have failed to appear in response to a written or verbal promise to appear, whether you have posted bail (California Penal Code 853.8), whether your FTA was in response to a vehicle code violation (California Vehicle Code 40508(a)), whether your FTA was in conjunction with a misdemeanor or felony charge (California Penal Code 1320 & 1320.5), or failure to appear for a trial because you are (1) the defendant (California Penal Code 978.5 ), (2) a witness in the case (California Code of Civil Procedure 1993 ), or (3) a juror on the case (California Code of Civil Procedure 1209). A bench warrant, like an arrest warrant, must be served within a reasonable time after its issuance. If it is not – and your right to a speedy trial has been violated – you may be entitled to a dismissal. (People v. Mitchell, (1972) 8 Cal.3d 164).
- California Penal Code 978.5.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 1209.
- See same.
- California Penal Code 1320.
- See same.
- California Penal Code 1320.5.
- See same.
- California Penal Code 1203.2.
- California Penal Code 1269(c). California Penal Code 986.
- Authority for forfeiting bail and issuing a bench warrant for a failure to appear may be found in the following sections, depending on the specific court proceeding from which the defendant was absent: California Penal Code sections 978.5, 979, and 1195-1199.
- California Penal Code 980(b). People v. American Contractors Indem. Co., (1999) 76 Cal.App.4th 1408.