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What Happens if You Miss Your Court Date When You’re Out on Bail?

— April 12, 2021

If you have already skipped bail and a bench warrant is out for your arrest, contact a qualified attorney immediately.

After a criminal defendant is arrested, formally charged, and arraigned for their offenses, the court will decide the issue of bail. Defendants are entitled to bail as a matter of right, although bail may be denied under certain circumstances. Bail is an amount of money determined by the court that the defendant must pay in order to be released from jail as they await trial. Depending on your circumstances, a defendant may be permitted to pay a portion of the bail rather than the entire amount in order to be released. The purpose of bail is to ensure the defendant’s appearance at trial. Unfortunately, some defendants fail to appear at their hearings. Failure to appear, or skipping bail, will result in swift consequences from law enforcement and the courts.

Consequences of Skipping Bail

Failure to appear at trial will result in the forfeiture of bail, meaning the defendant gives up any money they paid toward bail. Once a defendant has skipped bail, the court will often issue a bench warrant within 30 days of the failure to appear.

A bench warrant authorizes law enforcement to arrest the defendant at their next encounter and bring them back to court. This type of warrant is referred to as a bench warrant rather than simply an arrest warrant because a judge or magistrate issues it from the bench of the court. The police will not typically go and arrest the defendant immediately with a bench warrant. Instead, an arrest will occur at the defendant’s next encounter with the police. This often happens at routine traffic stops sometime after the bench warrant is issued. Because it might be a while until the defendant’s next encounter with law enforcement, bench warrants do not have an expiration date. It is therefore possible for a defendant to be arrested on a bench warrant years after it was issued.

If a defendant has missed their hearing and skipped bail, whether intentionally or inadvertently, it is imperative that they contact the court as soon as possible. Explaining to the court why the defendant missed their court date might result in the bench warrant being dropped in favor of scheduling a new court date. However, this does not mean the judge will go easy on the defendant at the next hearing. A defendant will need to explain themselves to the judge, and the judge could decide to hold them without bail until the date of trial.

Image of a hallway of jail cells
Jail Cells; image courtesy of Carles Rabada via Unsplash,

Additional Penalties for Missing a Hearing While on Bail

For certain defendants charged with domestic violence-related offenses, violating the terms of their bail will result in some harsher penalties. According to § 77-20-1(10) of the Utah Code of Criminal Procedure, for example, a defendant charged with domestic-violence related offenses who violates the terms of their bail may be held without bail until their trial. Other states may have other similar rules.

Skipping bail or bail-jumping is also a criminal offense on its own in some states and may be charged in addition to a defendant’s already existing charges. Using Utah as an example again, § 76-8-312 of the Utah Criminal Code says bail-jumping will result in criminal charges, and the severity of those charges will depend on the nature of the underlying charges. For example, if your underlying charge is a felony, bail-jumping will be a third-degree felony. If your underlying offense is a misdemeanor, your bail-jumping offense will be charged as a class B misdemeanor.

Indirect Consequences of Skipping Bail

There are also indirect consequences of bail jumping that might adversely affect a defendant’s case. In most criminal trials, the prosecutor will offer a plea deal or plea bargain to the defendant. The exact terms of that plea deal are within the discretion of the prosecutor. A defendant who skips bail sends a message to the prosecutor that they are unreliable, irresponsible, and unrepentant for their alleged crimes. Under such circumstances, a prosecutor may be less inclined to offer a plea deal, or, if they do offer a deal, the terms may be less agreeable to the defendant. A prosecutor could also be less willing to negotiate the terms of a plea deal if they do not believe the defendant can be relied upon to show up for court or to follow through with the terms of community service or probation.

In the event the defendant is found guilty at trial, the prosecutor is permitted to make sentencing recommendations to the judge. By skipping bail, a defendant sends a message to the prosecutor that they do not take the proceedings seriously and lack remorse for their actions. A prosecutor may then recommend a judge impose a harsher sentence. If a defendant cannot be trusted to comply with the terms of their bail, the prosecutor could argue that the defendant cannot be trusted to abide by the terms of a more lenient sentence such as probation.

Final Thoughts on Skipping Bail

Criminal defendants should avoid skipping bail or bail-jumping at all costs. Once you know the date of your next hearing, make any arrangements necessary to ensure you arrive on time. If an emergency comes up and you cannot appear in court, contact the court as soon as possible and let them know about your situation. The court is more likely to accommodate you if you clue them in ahead of time. If you have already skipped bail and a bench warrant is out for your arrest, contact a qualified attorney immediately.

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