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Can a person go to jail for failure to appear in court in California?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Oct 11, 2019 | 0 Comments

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A person in California can get jail time for not appearing in court.

A person in California can get jail time for not appearing in court.

In fact, a judge can punish a person with imprisonment if either of the following occur:

  1. the party does not appear in court in a criminal matter when ordered by the court to do so, and
  2. the person breaks his promise to appear in court following a traffic citation or ticket.

Penal Code 1320 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to willfully fail to appear in court when required to do so. Depending on the facts of the case, a violation of this law can lead up to three years in state prison.

Vehicle Code 40508 VC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to fail to appear in court following a traffic ticket. A violation of this statute is punishable by up to six months in county jail.

What is the law under California Penal Code 1320?

Per PC 1320, a person can go to jail if he does not appear in court when ordered to do so.

A prosecutor must prove four things in order to successfully convict a person under this statute. These are that the defendant:

  1. was charged with or convicted of a California crime (either a misdemeanor or a felony),
  2. was released from custody on his own recognizance,
  3. willfully failed to appear before the court as required, and
  4. did so with the intent to evade the process of the court.

Willfully” means with a purpose or intention to commit the criminal act—in this case, not showing up for a court date.

PC 1320 only applies when a person has been released from custody on his own recognizance (also known as an “O.R. release”).

An O.R. release is when a judge allows a defendant to leave custody without posting bail.

The penalties for violating this code section depend on the type of crime the defendant was initially charged with or convicted of.

If charged with or convicted of a misdemeanor, then failure to appear is a misdemeanor and the penalty may include imprisonment in the county jail for up to six months.

If charged with or convicted of a felony, then failure to appear is charged as a felony and the penalty may include either:

  • imprisonment in county jail for up to one year, or
  • a state prison sentence of 16 months, two years, or three years.

What is the law under California Penal Code 1320.5?

Penal Code 1320.5 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to fail to appear in court, in felony cases, after being released from custody on bail.

PC 1320.5 differs from PC 1320 in that it only applies to a defendant that has been:

  1. charged with or convicted of a felony, and
  2. released on bail.

As to the second point, note that a judge does have the option to refuse an O.R. release and:

  • set a bail, and
  • keep the defendant in custody until he posts bail.

In this situation, if a party posts bail, then he is said to have been released from custody on bail. A party will remain in custody if he cannot afford to post bail.

A violation of PC 1320.5 is charged as a felony. The crime is punishable by:

  • imprisonment in the county jail for up to three years, or
  • a state prison sentence of up to three years.

What is the law under California Vehicle Code 40508?

Vehicle code 40508 VC is the California statute that says a driver can go to jail if he fails to appear in traffic court after receiving a ticket or citation.

Please note that when an officer issues a traffic ticket to a driver in California, the officer has the motorist sign a written promise to appear in court.

If the person willfully fails to appear as promised, he violates VC 40508. A driver willfully fails to appear when he is willingly a no-show. It does not even matter if he did not intend to break the law. Nor does it matter whether he is guilty or innocent of the underlying traffic citation.

A driver violates Vehicle Code 40508 just by breaking a promise to:

  • appear in court,
  • appear to pay bail,
  • pay bail in installments,
  • pay a fine within the time authorized, or
  • comply with any condition of the court.

A violation of this statute is a misdemeanor and the penalty may include up to six months in county jail.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

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, Court TV, 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.

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