What is a Bench Warrant?

Among the many types of legal warrants is a bench warrant, one of the most frequently issued by the courts. A bench warrant is a demand for appearance – generally through arrest, although you could turn yourself in – and these are most often created when a person does not show up to a court hearing when they"re supposed to, such as a probation violation hearing, to testify in a trial, or even for a misdemeanor traffic violation. Bench warrants may also be issued for failure to comply with court orders, such as attending classes, paying restitution, or staying away from witnesses.

Many people are confused by warrants and do not understand the process by which their names may end up on one. You may be stopped by police for a simple thing like a burned out tail light or being at a party where there"s a fight – and then get arrested on a warrant you didn"t know existed. How does that happen without your knowledge? There are a variety of explanations: Courts may not have your correct address to send an official hearing notice, or your traffic ticket may include warrant information in small type on the bottom where you signed to acknowledge its receipt. Others may be included in wide-ranging police warrants seeking witnesses to a crime.

The implications are wide-ranging: if you have an outstanding warrant, credit checks and criminal background searches that new employers perform are likely to discover them. If you apply for a travel visa, seek to adopt a child, or are recruited to join the military, a warrant can complicate or even derail the process.

Immediate vs. Misdemeanor Warrants

If the warrant for your arrest was generated due to a failure to appear for a serious issue, such as arraignment on a felony charge, the warrant will call for your immediate arrest and detention. If you posted bail and then failed to make it to the next court hearing on a serious charge, your bail is likely to be forfeited. A judge is less likely to show leniency and let you out on bail again after this type of situation.

If you believe you missed a court date and think there could be a warrant for your arrest, you may call the court or the local law enforcement agency and ask. Turning yourself in is a sign of good intention that might be used as leverage to negotiate a lesser punishment during a trial or plea hearing.

Misdemeanor warrants are very common for infractions such as moving violations, traffic accidents, and petty theft. It is possible that you may miss some communication from the court (such as a date to appear written on the bottom of a traffic citation) that will result in a warrant for failure to show. Unless you have a criminal record, such a misdemeanor bench warrant is unlikely to get you arrested and locked up. Instead, you"re likely to be required to pay a fine on top of any fees the next time you seek to register a vehicle, renew your driver"s license, or do other business with local or state government.

Statute of Limitations?

Due to the overwhelming number of warrants created, many states have sought to reduce the workload of law enforcement by discharging the less-important warrants for misdemeanors. If there"s an outstanding warrant for you, don"t assume that this has happened in your state – call the local law enforcement or courthouse to find out if there"s a warrant for your arrest. Warrants do not expire after a certain period of time. Some misdemeanor crimes cannot be charged after a 7 year period but once there is a warrant issued, it"s good forever.