A criminal court summons is non-negotiable and if you fail to show up for a court date, you could face criminal charges. A judge has the authority to put a warrant out for your arrest if you fail to appear in court. The process is different in civil proceedings, however. If you miss a civil summons and the other party can show that she served the summons correctly, then you might get a judgment entered against you.
As long as you can prove the missed court date was completely unintentional, you may not face serious consequences.
How Criminal Summons are Served
A criminal court summons is issued by the criminal courts for violating certain laws. For example, the police may pull over someone who is driving an uninsured vehicle. In some states, the police are not permitted to arrest the person, but may file a complaint with the local court. The court 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 a summons. Until the summons is served, a civil court does not have jurisdiction over you. You don’t have to go to court.
You Could be Served and Not Know It
You can be served without knowing about it. If you have just moved, for example, and the government agency does not yet have the up-to-date address, then the criminal court papers may go to the wrong address. Or perhaps a family member accepted service of a civil summons and forgot all about it. The civil courts are reasonably generous in saying which family members can legally accept service on your behalf.
Failing to Show in Criminal Court
When you fail to show up for a criminal court date, the judge may issue a bench warrant. This is a written order authorizing your arrest. It allows police officers to place you under arrest at any time or in any location they find you. 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, then the court likely will set another court date. As long as you can show that the missed court date was unintentional, you may not face serious consequences.
Failing to Show in Civil Court
Not appearing on the court date means that you may 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 – for example, the process server served someone else at some place that’s not your home or workplace – then the case would be continued to another court date. The other side can try again to serve you, and the whole process would start again.
Where There’s No Excuse
Sometimes, failing to receive the summons is not considered a valid excuse for missing the court date. If you moved several months ago, for example, but never updated your address, then you’re still responsible for any mail that is delivered to the old address. The court is not going to have sympathy if you’re a soldier of your own misfortune.