A bench warrant is a type of arrest warrant that is issued by a judge, instructing the police to arrest a person and to bring that person to the court.
The desk behind which the judge sits in the courtroom is called the bench, so a bench warrant gets its name from the fact that it is normally issued by the judge from the bench during a session of court. Bench warrants are typically issued under the following circumstances:
Contempt of Court - A court may issue a bench warrant based upon a finding of contempt of court, such as a party's failure to pay fines or child support as ordered by the court.
Failure to Appear in Court - A court may issue a bench warrant for a party who is summoned to court, or who is subpoenaed to court or to a legal proceeding such as a deposition and fails to appear as ordered.
Most bench warrants are issued over a party's failure to appear in court. If you have a problem that is going to delay your getting to court, it is sensible to contact the court as soon as you can to inform the court of the reason for the delay and when you will be able to appear. If you accidentally miss a court date, it is sensible to contact the court as soon as you can and see if you can reschedule your court appearance without the issuance of a warrant. Many judges are willing to allow a defendant to appear in court in a later session on the same day, to explain their earlier non-appearance and if necessary to reschedule the matter.
Courts are skeptical of any excuse for missing court that involves illness that does not also require inpatient hospitalization, so if you are going to claim that you were sick you had best bring good documentation from your doctor or the hospital in which you were treated.
In a criminal case, an arrest warrant may be issued following a grand jury indictment, or following a request for a warrant to a judge who reviews an application submitted by law enforcement to determine if there is probable cause for a defendant's arrest. In many cases no arrest warrant is issued and the defendant is instead charged following arrest, or is issued a summons to appear in court on a specified date and time. A defendant may not be aware of an arrest warrant before being detained by the police on that warrant.
Sometimes a court will set bail when issuing a bench warrant (a bond warrant), such that a person who is arrested on a bench warrant can post bail with the arresting agency. In other cases, the defendant may have to appear in court before bail is set (a no-bond warrant, requiring remand). Bond warrants are most likely to be issued in minor matters where the person is likely to be able to resolve the case by payment of a fine, and the bond is often set in the amount of the fine. In child support arrears cases, bond may similarly be set in the amount of the arrears.
As a criminal defendant or person facing probation or parole violation proceedings who fails to appear in court is likely to be deemed a flight risk, it is less likely that a criminal defendant who fails to appear will be able to post bail before appearing in court.
Many people believe that if a bench warrant is issued the police will promptly respond to your last known address to try to arrest you. That rarely occurs. Most people who are picked up on bench warrants are arrested following random encounters with law enforcement, such as after a traffic stop, after being questioned by the police for an unrelated matter, or even when reporting a crime to the police. Some people are arrested when they attempt to visit somebody in a prison or jail. Some people are even arrested at airports, when their warrants are discovered by TSA.
If arrested while driving, you may face the additional cost and burden of recovering your vehicle from impound. If arrested while traveling, you may miss flights, a cruise departure, or an important event. At times you will hear of somebody who is informed by the police after a minor encounter that they have a warrant that they should address, but that the police did them a favor by not taking them into custody. Sometimes a police encounter will occur outside of the pickup radius for a warrant -- the geographic area in which the court has ordered the subject of the warrant to be detained -- such that the person learns of the warrant but isn't arrested. But you can't count on being lucky: If you have a bench warrant for your arrest, you should assume that you're going to end up in jail at the worst possible time, and consider making it a priority to resolve the warrant.
If you find out that a bench warrant has been issued for your arrest, you may want to respond to the warrant in order to avoid the possibility of an unexpected arrest, and to minimize any amount of time you may end up spending in jail before you can appear before the judge who issued the warrant. For minor matters, such as unpaid traffic tickets, you may be able to simply pay your fines to the court to have the warrant withdrawn.
For more complicated matters, particularly when you will be required to appear in court, it makes sense to consult a lawyer. A lawyer may be able to arrange for you to turn yourself in on the warrant and get you before the court on the same day, and may also be able to negotiate a resolution of the warrant with the other party or prosecutor before your court date. If you turn yourself in on a warrant, you may find that you are placed in the custody of the Sheriff pending the next available court hearing, and unnecessarily spend a night or even a weekend in jail before you can appear in court.
If you are facing a bench warrant for a criminal offense and have previously posted bail, you should assume that your bail was forfeited as a result of your failure to appear in court. Sometimes it is possible to convince a court to reinstate bail, particularly when a defendant has a very good reason for missing court and appears at the earliest possible date once that emergency is resolved, but you cannot count on that happening. If you are looking at a bail forfeiture you should discuss your options with your criminal defense lawyer.