A bench warrant lives forever…or at least until the underlying problem that caused it is resolved. But how long do you have to worry about it if it’s not resolved? It will eventually fade away into the background, but this could take many years. And it remains on the individual's record and can still be used to apprehend him. It just won’t be the first thing law enforcement sees when authorities check the record.
How Do Bench Warrants Work?
A bench warrant is issued by a judge while he’s on the bench hearing a case, thus the name. This usually happens because the defendant received notice to appear in court for a hearing and didn't do so. The judge is there and all the other involved parties are present, but the defendant is a no-show. This is considered contempt of court. The judge will most likely issue a bench warrant authorizing law enforcement to arrest the defendant and promptly bring him to his courtroom.
A bench warrant isn’t the same as an arrest warrant. Bench warrants result from cases involving misdemeanor charges or civil court matters, such as when a parent fails to pay child support. Felony charges are typically far more complex with defendants held in custody until trial or released on bail, although bench warrants can also include a set amount of bail the individual can post should he be apprehended.
What Does It Mean When a Warrant Is Returned?
A bench warrant is “returned” when an arresting officer executes it by arresting the defendant and bringing him back to court, even if he must first be extradited from another state. A defendant might have run afoul of the law while visiting Niagara Falls, then returned home to Pennsylvania. In this case, Pennsylvania authorities can act on the warrant when and if they become aware of it. They can hold the defendant in Pennsylvania until the New York court arranges to have him taken back to where the original offense occurred.
As a practical matter, however, it’s unlikely that the authorities would go to the expense and trouble of extraditing someone for whom they have an outstanding bench warrant if the underlying charge isn’t a felony or a very serious matter.
What Happens When the Defendant Is Arrested?
A bench warrant authorizes law enforcement to take a person into custody even if he’s just spotted on the street – he doesn’t have to be committing a crime at the time. Authorities can go to his home, ring his doorbell and arrest him when he answers the door. Most often, however, bench warrants are returned due to some other incident or infraction. The defendant might be stopped for running a red light, and the officer will become aware of the bench warrant when he runs his ID through the system.
A defendant has the option of simply turning himself in if he learns a bench warrant has been issued against him. He doesn’t have to wait to be embarrassed by authorities arriving on his front porch. The matter would proceed along much the same lines as if he were arrested, but it obviously would leave the judge with a better impression if he came in voluntarily. It’s even possible that the defendant could be released pending a new hearing in the original matter, particularly in child support cases.
What Is Done at a Pretrial?
A bench warrant does not normally result in a pretrial. proceeding. It's issued because someone failed to appear at an earlier trial or hearing in another case. As the name suggests, pretrial hearings are held before the trial, so small issues are ironed out before the trial begins in an effort to streamline the proceedings. Bench warrants do not result in a new, separate trial against a defendant who’s being detained for failure to appear at an initial trial or hearing. They're part of the original case.
The Bench Warrant Hearing
In the case of a returned bench warrant, a hearing will be scheduled as soon as possible after arrest. Another judge might stand in for the initial judge if she isn’t expected to be available within a reasonable period of time. The defendant will most likely remain in jail until a hearing is arranged unless the bench warrant cites an amount of bail. In this case, he would be released pending the hearing, assuming he can meet the bail amount.
The bench warrant typically ends, or is vacated, when the defendant finally appears, even if he's done so because he was arrested. The bench warrant can no longer be used against him after it's vacated, although it can remain on his record as having been resolved and could show up during a background check on an unrelated matter.
In some states, such as Pennsylvania, bench warrants expire even if they’re not vacated if the defendant isn’t granted a hearing within a prescribed period of time after apprehension, usually about 72 hours allowing for weekends and holidays.
Read More: Bench Warrant Penalties
A bench warrant will last until the matter that led to its issuance is resolved.
- Black’s Law Dictionary: Will My Bench Warrant Expire?
- The Pennsylvania Code: Part E – Miscellaneous Warrants
- Attorney General, District of Columbia: Bench Warrants
- LSNJLAW: Child Support Bench Warrants
- FailuretoAppear: Bench Warrant
- USLegal: Return of Warrant Law and Legal Definition
- LegalMatch: What to Expect at a Pretrial Hearing
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.