A criminal court summons is non-negotiable. You could face criminal charges if you fail to show up for a court date after being notified. A judge has the authority to put a warrant out for your arrest if you fail to appear.
The process is a little different in civil proceedings, however. You might have a judgment entered against you giving the other party everything she asked for if you miss a civil summons and the other party can show that she served the summons on you correctly.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
You might not face serious consequences as long as you can prove that the missed court date was completely unintentional.
How Criminal Summons Are Served
A criminal court summons is issued for violating certain laws. For example, the police might pull someone over who's driving an uninsured vehicle. In some states, the officer is not permitted to arrest the person, but he might file a complaint with the local court. The court will then issues a summons for the driver to appear in court on a certain date.
In a case like this, the criminal court would typically use the address on the suspect's driver’s license to send the summons.
How Civil Summons Are Served
With civil proceedings, it’s up to the person filing the petition to serve the summons in accordance with state law. The plaintiff must determine the most appropriate method of service, which might include certified postal mail or personal delivery.
Some jurisdictions permit only process servers and law enforcement officers to serve or deliver a summons. A civil court doesn't have jurisdiction to decide the issue behind the lawsuit until the summons is served along with a copy of the petition or complaint. It's your constitutional right to know what the lawsuit is all about, so you don’t have to go to court unless you receive these documents.
You Could be Served and Not Know It
You might be considered served without knowing about it. In fact, this is a commonly cited reason for missing a court date.
But ignorance alone doesn't excuse you from not appearing in court. You must prove to the court that you didn't receive the notice. The court might understand if you've recently moved and the government agency doesn't have your current address so the criminal court papers might have gone to the wrong address. A family member might have accepted service of a civil summons and forgotten to tell you about it. Civil courts are reasonably generous in saying which family members can legally accept service on your behalf, but criminal courts are less so. No matter the reason you didn't receive a summons, you should set a date to speak with the judge about it.
Sometimes, a court completes service by publication. In this case, a local paper or other news outlet publishes a summons or notice of a lawsuit. The summons appears in the media at least once a week for at series of weeks. The exact terms are set by state law.
This often happens in family court when one spouse or parent can't locate the other. The court can give special permission allowing service by publication as a last resort.
If someone achieves service on you in one of these ways, it doesn't mean that you saw the summons. You can tell the court why you would not or could not have seen or received the notice. Ultimately, the decision on whether this is an acceptable excuse is up to the judge.
Failing to Show in Criminal Court
The judge can issue a bench warrant for your arrest if you fail to show up in criminal court. This allows a police officer to place you under arrest at any time or in any location.
You should go to court as soon as possible to resolve the warrant and explain yourself. If you have a legitimate reason for non-attendance, such as moving and not receiving the summons, the court likely will set another court date. You might not face serious consequences as long as you can show that the missed court date was unintentional.
Failing to Show in Civil Court
Not appearing on the court date means that you can lose the case by default. The court can enter a judgment against you in your absence if the other party can show that you were properly served.
If you were improperly served, however, such as because the process server served someone else at a location that's not your home or workplace, the case would be "continued" or rescheduled to another court date. The other side can try again to serve you, and the whole process would begin again.
Where There’s No Excuse
Sometimes failing to receive the summons is not considered a valid excuse for missing the court date. Ultimately, the judge has discretion over whether to accept an excuse. If you moved several months ago, for example, but never updated your address with the postal service, a judge could decide that you did not take the steps a reasonable person would to receive mail and are still responsible for not showing in court.