A bench warrant (“BW”) issued in California does not expire. It remains in effect until either:
- the subject of the warrant dies, or
- the warrant gets cleared.
In California, a person can clear a BW by either:
- appearing in court before the judge, or
- possibly having the party's attorney appear in court on his behalf.
If a bench warrant does not get cleared, a person risks getting arrested and a judge may:
- release the party with a warning, or
- order the party into jail.
What is a bench warrant?
A “bench warrant” (sometimes referred to as a "body attachment") is the most common type of warrant issued in California. It is issued from “the bench,” which means the judge. These warrants are not issued because of suspected criminal activity. Rather, a judge authorizes a BW typically because a party has failed to:
- appear in court,
- pay a fine, or
- obey a court order.
A California BW authorizes law enforcement personnel to arrest the person named in the warrant and bring him directly to court.
How long does a bench warrant last?
A bench warrant issued in California does not expire. It is not deleted or removed after, say, five years. Rather, it remains in effect until:
- the person named in the warrant dies, or
- the warrant gets cleared (which is to say a judge recalls it).
BWs in California do not expire because, if they did, it would encourage bad and dishonest behavior. People subject to a warrant would spend a period of time avoiding a judge, or lying to a court, in order to escape arrest.
How does a party clear a bench warrant?
Clearing a BW is also referred to as “recalling” or “quashing” one. Quashing a bench warrant means having it cleared from California's judicial system.
A party must appear in court in order to recall a warrant.
A person can have his attorney appear in court on the person's behalf, provided that:
- the party failed to appear for a court appearance, or
- the party failed to make a payment in connection with a misdemeanor offense.
If, though, a person failed to obey a court order that arose out of a felony case, the party must be present in court personally (with or without an attorney) in order to clear a BW.
In trying to quash a bench warrant, a party (or his attorney) can try to do so by arguing that:
- he never received a notice to appear in court,
- he complied with all the conditions and requirements within a court order,
- he was unaware that a case had been filed, and/or,
- there has been a mistake in identity.
Should a person consult with an attorney before quashing a warrant?
It is critical for a party to contact an experienced California warrants attorney when trying to recall a BW.
Please note that if a person appears in court in an attempt to clear a warrant, the judge does have the option to place the party in custody. Thus, a lawyer is important to help ensure that this does not happen.
A knowledgeable attorney is also helpful because he/she will know:
- the most effective arguments to raise on the client's behalf,
- what evidence to offer, and
- the proper steps to take to quash a warrant and keep the party out of jail.
What happens if a bench warrant does not get recalled?
If a party does not clear a BW, law enforcement personnel have the authority to arrest the person and bring the party to court.
Once brought to court, the judge can either:
- release the party with a warning, or
- place the person in custody.
The judge will make this decision after considering the person's:
- criminal history,
- flight risk, and
- circumstances that led to the BW.
Please also note that if a BW does not get recalled, it could lead to:
- a probation violation,
- enhanced fines, and/or
- a California driver's license suspension.
What are the penalties if a person fails to appear in court?
As stated above, one of the reasons a BW may get issued is if a person fails to appear for a court appearance. Failure to appear (“FTA”) is a crime in California.
If a party willfully fails to appear on a scheduled court date for a misdemeanor, the prosecution will additionally charge him with FTA as a misdemeanor. If found guilty of the charge, then per California Penal Code 1320, the defendant can face a maximum $1,000 fine and a maximum six-month county jail sentence.
If a party willfully fails to appear for a felony case, the prosecution will additionally charge him with felony FTA. Under PC 1320, if convicted, the accused may face a minimum $5,000 fine and a county jail or state prison sentence.