A bench warrant is an arrest warrant issued by a judge or court, most commonly when a defendant fails to appear at a scheduled court hearing. This is also known as a “Failure to Appear,” or “FTA,” warrant. When a bench warrant is issued, it gives law enforcement agencies the authority to detain the defendant and bring him to court to address the issue. To explore this concept, consider the following bench warrant definition.
Definition of Bench Warrant
- A writ issued by a court or judge ordering the apprehension and arrest of an offender.
1690-1700 English common law
What is a Bench Warrant
A bench warrant is most often used as a criminal law term that refers to a writ issued by a judge when a defendant fails to appear in court as ordered, or to comply with the terms the court has set forth. A bench warrant gives police officers the authority to arrest the defendant and bring him before the court. The purpose of a bench warrant is to deter defendants from violating court orders, and to punish offenders for failing to appear as required by the court.
John gets into an altercation with his friend and the police are called. Rather than face charges of assault, the police officer that responded to the scene issues a ticket for disturbing the peace. John is given a court date on the ticket. The court date comes and goes, and John fails to appear as ordered. The judge, after realizing John is not present, issues a bench warrant.
Three weeks after the court date, John is pulled over by a police officer for speeding on his way home from a friend’s house. After running a driver’s license check, the officer discovers John has a bench warrant. John is arrested and taken to jail to await a court hearing. In addition to facing the judge for the original violation which resulted in the bench warrant, John will likely be held accountable for the speeding violation.
Issuing a Bench Warrant
Generally speaking, bench warrants are issued when some type of contempt of court has occurred. Failing to appear at a scheduled hearing is one type of contempt. Other types of contempt may include such actions as outright disobeying a court order, or failing to report for jury duty. Judges have the authority to issue bench warrants for acts of contempt for which they have personal knowledge. In the case of someone disobeying a court order, the process is usually initiated by another person to file a court document requesting that a bench warrant be issued.
Tom is ordered to pay $800 to his ex-wife, Julia, to cover the arrears for his half of the daycare costs for their three children. The court order specifies that the total sum was to be paid by October 1st. On October 2nd, Julia calls Tom, and he tells her “I’ll pay it when I get to it.” Because Tom was specifically ordered to comply with the court’s order by a specific date, he is in contempt of court.
Julia files an affidavit for contempt with the court, asking that Tom be called before the judge to be held accountable. The judge may schedule a hearing, ordering Tom to appear, or he may issue a bench warrant authorizing police to find Tom and take him into custody. Either way, Tom will be required to explain why he did not comply with the previous court order. If he does not have a very good reason, he is likely to be found in contempt of court, which is a criminal charge. Tom would then face sanctions, whether in the form of jail time, or in the form of a monetary award to Julia.
What to Do When a Bench Warrant Has Been Issued
When an individual learns that a bench warrant has been issued for his arrest, it is very important to take care of it as soon as possible. The bench warrant gives law enforcement the authority and direction to arrest the defendant and return him to court. However, a bench warrant usually will not send the police out to look for the defendant. Instead, when a bench warrant is issued, it is entered into a statewide database that alerts law enforcement officers to the warrant. If the defendant has any interaction with the police, even for minor incidents, he will be taken into police custody.
Once an individual has been taken to jail on a bench warrant, he must post bail to be released. The bail is generally set at an amount sufficient to cover the fines, court costs, and administrative fees to cover the original offense, as well as for the FTA. Once the required bail amount has been paid, the defendant is given a new court date and released from jail. If the judge has good reason to believe the defendant will flee or fail to appear again, he can refuse to set bail. In this case, the defendant must remain in custody until he appears before the court.
Any individual who becomes aware a bench warrant has been issued may call the local police department, or the court itself, to make arrangements to take care of it. In many circumstances, he may be allowed to pay the bail and receive a new court date. If a defendant is released after posting bail, or is allowed to remain free after posting bail, then fails to appear at the new court date, not only is his bail forfeited, but a regular arrest warrant may be issued.
Lane gets into a fight in the parking lot of the local bar. When police arrive, they decide to give Lane a citation, rather than arrest him, and instruct his sober friend to drive him home. The citation contains an order to appear at the justice court on a specified date. Still drunk, Lane tosses everything in his pockets onto a cluttered countertop, then promptly forgets about the citation.
When his case is called on the date of the hearing, Lane is nowhere to be found. The judge issues a bench warrant so that, at some point, Lane will be brought to his court. Three months later, Lane is pulled over for failing to use his blinker while driving. The officer discovers there is a bench warrant, arrests Lane, and takes him to jail. The bail amount has already been set at $2,000, which Lane promptly pays, and he is released with an order to appear at court on a specified date a week later.
If Lane fails to show up at the new court date, the judge is likely to issue a regular arrest warrant, and would be less likely to allow Lane to post bail again.
Bench Warrant Check
Any individual who is concerned about whether a bench warrant has been issued for his arrest, there are a few options for checking into it. The individual can check with the local court, or the local law enforcement agency. If he is worried he may be arrested if he appears in person to check on a warrant, he may attempt to call with his questions. Many, but not all, courts and some police departments accept phone calls for warrant checks. If phone calls are accepted, the caller can usually obtain only limited information.
Alternatively, the individual may obtain the information by doing an online background check, which shows criminal history, as well as public records. Many states operate a bench warrant check web page on their official websites. These resources may be used by anyone in most cases. Warrants listed on these sites is often limited to warrants issued as a direct result of court actions in the jurisdiction, such as bench warrants. Many court websites offer information on civil cases in addition to warrants.
There are many private online resources for background checks and bench warrant checks. These are popularly used by employers and landlords, and require payment of a fee to obtain a comprehensive report. To perform this type of bench warrant check, the individual must enter his full name, date of birth, city of residence, and perhaps other identifying information. These websites often return listings on multiple individuals with the same, or very similar, name, and they rarely guarantee the reports’ accuracy.
Difference Between a Bench Warrant and an Arrest Warrant
While all warrants serve the purpose of bringing an individual before the court to answer for something, there are significant differences between a bench warrant and an arrest warrant. Bench warrants may be issued in both civil and criminal cases. In a criminal case, bench warrants are most commonly issued when a defendant fails to appear at his scheduled court hearing. In civil cases, bench warrants may be issued to bring a subpoenaed witness to court, or for an indivual who has failed or refused to comply with an order previously made by the court. In some jurisdictions, the court may issue a bench warrant for someone who has failed to show up for jury duty.
Arrest warrants are issued when the judge believes there is sufficient evidence that a defendant has committed a crime. This may be due to information gathered during a police investigation, or as a result of a grand jury investigation. While an individual subject to a bench warrant is usually arrested during contact with law enforcement officials on another matter, an arrest warrant will send the police looking for him in order to take him into custody. This often includes searching for him at his home, work, or the homes of family members and friends.
Bench Warrant Issued for Man Accused of Felony Theft Charges
In 2009, Mathew Galla was hired as an office assistant for Munhall Borough, where he worked his way up to a management position by 2011. Following Galla’s promotion, the company began missing audits, and a subsequent investigation showed Galla was mismanaging the company and embezzling money. It is believed Galla cost the company nearly $250,000. He was arrested and charged with four counts of felony theft, and posted $25,000 bail to be released from jail.
When Galla failed to appear at a July 2015 hearing, the judge issued a bench warrant. Family members alerted police that Galla was attempting to flee the state, and Galla was apprehended by police at the Pittsburgh International Airport and taken into custody. Although Galla claimed he simply didn’t remember the court date correctly, the court didn’t buy it, and revoked his bail.
Galla had originally been arrested on an arrest warrant, which was issued as a result of police investigation. Galla was released on bail and given a date to appear at court. Because he failed to appear, the judge issued a bench warrant to have him brought to court.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Authority – The right or power to make decisions, to give orders, or to control something or someone.
- Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
- Contempt of Court – A willful act of disobedience to an order of the court; deliberately being rude or disrespectful to the judge or the court.
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Public Record – Any information kept by a governmental entity that is accessible to be viewed by the public. Such information may be anything from a recorded deed to a civil or criminal judgment.
- Search Warrant – A court order that authorizes law enforcement officers or agents to search a person or a place for the purpose of obtaining evidence or contraband for use in criminal prosecution.
- Subpoena – A writ issued by the court ordering a person to appear as a witness in a judicial proceeding, or requesting submission of certain evidence.
- Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
- Warrant – A writ issued by a court or other legal official authorizing law enforcement or other agency to make an arrest, search a premises, or take some other action related to the administration of justice.