Law Definitions: What Is A Bench Warrant?

When a judge issues an order to appear in court, failure to follow that order results in a bench warrant for arrest.

A bench warrant, as one legal consultant noted wryly, isn't nearly as comfy as it sounds at first. In all 50 United States, a bench warrant is issued by a judge, not the police.It orders an alleged wrongdoer to show up in court voluntarily, or face "attachment" or "seizure" by law enforcement -- translation: arrest -- to force you to the "bench."

Every courtroom in every county in every state in the country operates under what are called "court rules," usually established by the local and state courts.These rules are designed to manage and govern the expected and required behaviors of parties to lawsuits, as well as plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys and witnesses. Violate a court rule or an order of the court -- especially one that demands your appearance in court -- and you are subject to a bench warrant.

It's often used to coerce reluctant parties to appear in court after they've already been ordered to court once.And while judges are usually willing to juggle their case dockets for a bona fide scheduling conflict or a last-minute emergency, their patience is not unlimited.Blatant indifference to a court rule, court order or court appearance is usually deemed "contempt of court" and a bench warrant is likely to follow on its heels.

There are virtually endless ways to show contempt for the court and get slapped with a bench warrant, whether you mean to or not.Someone's suing you, and you don't show up because you believe the case is frivolous or malicious?A summons to court isn't yours to evaluate.If the court says, "be here," you had best be there, on time and dressed appropriately.Lateness, sloppy dress, a sassy or sullen manner -- even a cell phone going off at the wrong time -- are all typical demonstrations of contempt.Be 15 minutes late or walk out before the bailiff says "adjourned" -- and you may find a bench warrant in your name the next time you check your mailbox.

Missed your DUI class or falling behind in your child support?Did you allow your child to skip a visit with your ex because the child complained of illness or just wanted to stay home?Were you ordered to pay a court fine or restitution, and failed to do so?The court will usually authorize a "petition to show cause" that orders you to court to explain why you're not complying.If you fail to show up, expect a bench warrant. Have you been subpoenaed (invited to court) to testify in a civil lawsuit, or produce financial records after a creditor won a money judgment against you?Ignore the subpoena, and it is likely to be replaced by a bench warrant for your arrest.

It's not uncommon for celebrities, unwillingly embroiled in legal disputes, to find themselves on the receiving end of a bench warrant for "failure to appear." Issuance of bench warrants is a quick and easy way for courts to document who's following the rules, and who isn't.The warrants can be issued for civil or criminal cases, juvenile cases, divorce, child custody, misdemeanors and felonies, probate court, small claims and even post-judgment debt-collection actions.

There are so many gateways to the judicial system, so many court rules and so many ways to run afoul of the system that most states use form letters to notify violators that a bench warrant has been issued for them.In Michigan courts, for instance, the process is a simple fill-in-the-blanks court form that's mailed to the violator's home address. In some California counties, the correspondence of choice is a rather innocent-sounding "Bench Warrant Letter" that begins with the salutation "Dear ________"and indicates you're being given "a further opportunity to comply with the order" by rescheduling your previously missed court appearance.

Running afoul of the law by breaking court rules of which most citizens are unaware is easy and common. Getting action on a bench warrant is another issue altogether. Bench warrants, once issued by a judge, authorize police agencies to pick you up -- at home, at work, at school, on the street, any time of the day or night -- and arrest you as they would arrest any other law-breaker.

But the non-emergency nature of a bench warrant frequently rates a low priority in busy cop shops.Chances are, you won't be "lifted" for your warrant until and unless you break the law.With today's interconnected technology linking databases to patrol cars, bench warrant arrests are most often made when an offender violates some traffic law -- and gets caught.

Even then, bench warrants associated with petty crimes and civil disputes won't usually result in arrest or jail if the offender has enough cash on his or her person.In nearly every instance, first-time violators who skip a court date can pay a big fine, promise to show up next time, and be on their way. Make a habit of skipping court, however, and local law enforcement, when they do track you down, will most likely to hold you in detention when a bench warrant is authorized in your name.

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