New York City Bench Warrants and Arrest Warrants
By Don Murray, Esq.
Partner, Shalley & Murray
If you believe that there is a warrant for your arrest in New York City, and you are correct, you have an obligation to return yourself on that warrant as soon as physically possible. Until the moment you are in Court and a judge vacates the warrant, you are at risk of being arrested and brought to Court at any time of the police department's choosing.
Therefore, the first thing you must realize is that any lawyer you consult is going to advise you to return to Court and face the charges. In fact, it is a lawyer's obligation to advise anyone who is a fugitive from the Court to return to the Court.
types of bench warrants
Bench Warrants Issued for Failure to Appear in Court
The most common type of warrant is a warrant that is issued by the Court when you fail to appear in Court on the date you were scheduled to appear.
Failure to Show Proof of Community Service or Failure to Pay Fine
The warrant could have been issued after the case was over but because you failed to do community service that was ordered, or because you failed to pay a fine that was imposed.
Another type of warrant is an arrest warrant, where the police actually obtain a formal document requesting the arrest of a person. An example of this sort of warrant is when the District Attorney presents an investigation directly to a Grand Jury and the Grand Jury votes to indict people who have not been arrested yet. Once the indictment is voted, the Court can issue a warrant for the arrest of anyone indicted.
If you find out that there is an arrest warrant for you, it is vitally important that you retain a lawyer to represent you. A criminal defense lawyer will be able to make it difficult, for the police legally to obtain statements from you. It is in the arrest to arraignment phase of the criminal justice process when a person is most exposed and most likely to say and do things that will damage his or her situation. Even if you know that you are completely innocent, it is usually vitally important that you not make statements or provide information to the police without the advice of a criminal defense lawyer.
Once you have retained a lawyer, the lawyer will contact the police and make arrangements to surrender you.
In most situations, however, people are not aware that an arrest warrant exists for them until the police are in the process of arresting them. Occasionally, people become aware of the police interest in their whereabouts.
Returning on a Bench Warrant in New York City
Get in Touch with Your Lawyer or Retain a New One
If your warrant were issued after the case began, you must have been represented by someone. Perhaps it was the Legal Aid Society or one of the other Public Defender Organizations, or perhaps it was an Assigned Counsel lawyer. Few people are permitted to represent themselves, so you were almost certainly represented by someone. Presumably, if you had retained a lawyer, you would want to contact that lawyer.
If you can't locate the lawyer who represented you on your case, you can and should hire a lawyer to return you on the warrant.
Once you have retained a lawyer, discuss the logistics of returning to Court. The lawyer will likely advise you that your obligation is to return as soon as possible and will tell you to go to meet him or her in the courtroom as soon as possible.
Realize that although it is a good thing for you to have a lawyer manage this process for you, you must realize that as a result of the warrant, your intention to turn yourself in with a lawyer is not a shield from your being arrested in the interim. If you decide that it is inconvenient for you to return on Monday and advise the lawyer that you will meet him in court on Tuesday, you need to understand that you are at risk of being arrested Monday night or even Tuesday morning on your way to Court. If you are arrested under these circumstances your return will still be labeled "Involuntary" regardless of your intentions. It was always and is always your obligation to be in court and one of the consequences of failing to appear in court is that you are always at risk of being arrested on the warrant until you are physically back in the courtroom in front of a judge.
Why a Lawyer can Make the Process Easier
If you don't want to return with your previous lawyer or hire a new lawyer, you are left with going in by yourself. This is not the best thing for you to do, and you could well be extremely sorry you chose this course of action. Again, since it is your obligation to appear as soon as possible, there are circumstances in which you may have to weigh the risk of being involuntarily arrested and returned alone against the additional time period it would take to obtain a lawyer.
If you walk into the Courtroom yourself, you are likely to find it difficult to get the attention of the Court staff at a time when Court is not in session. During Court, the Court staff is understandably quite busy dealing with the business of Court. Although in the end you may be able to weave your way through the process, you are quite likely to spend an entire day in Court.
A lawyer, on the other hand, is in a position to gain the attention of the Court staff even when Court is in session, and is in a position to provide the Court staff with precisely the information they need to get the case added to the calendar for the return on the warrant.
Additionally, an experienced criminal defense lawyer will know what NOT to say to the judge in explanation of the warrant at the point that the judge asks, "why did you warrant?" The lawyer will know not to say something like, "He lost the paper reminder." This is something commonly said by people appearing without lawyers, something that inevitably infuriates judges who generally believe that someone accused of a crime ought to take it upon himself to find out his next date even if he loses the paper reminder. Faced with a choice between saying "no legitimate excuse" and "I lost the paper" most people are better off with point blank conceding no legitimate excuse.
go to court on your own with a lawyer for a warrant on an open matter - don't make an appointment to meet a police officer at court
Occasionally, the police contact people who are wanted on open cases and they make arrangements for these people to turn themselves in on warrants. The fugitives appear voluntarily at the Precinct, or even more strangely, they meet the Police Officers at the Courthouse, and they are arrested and brought into the courtroom in handcuffs. This is not the way to go, and should be avoided. The person who has a warrant for his arrest is far better off returning to court on his own without police involvement.
Here is why:
If you appear in Court because a police officer brought you in the Courtroom, then you are what is called, an "involuntary" return on a warrant. That means that the court records will forever suggest that you appeared "involuntarily" as opposed to voluntarily. This will be true, even if you meet the police officer in the Courthouse parking lot at 9:00 am and he never had to drag you to court.
This is what the police do not tell you when they tell you to meet them for a return on a warrant.
These "meet me" procedures for returning people on warrants represent easy and safe means for the police to generate statistics on the number of fugitives they "catch" but they cause people who would otherwise appear as voluntary returns to appear to the court as involuntary returns.
Therefore, if you are contacted by the police and they request that you surrender yourself to them to return on the warrant, you should make every effort to get to the courthouse and return yourself first, preferably with a lawyer.
It makes a big difference too. The difference is one in which you are paraded into the courtroom in handcuffs and presented to the judge as an involuntary return, as opposed to a situation in which you appear on your own (not in handcuffs). As you can easily imagine, judges are far more likely to take you seriously if you summoned up the courage to face up to the warrant as opposed to being (from their perspective) dragged into the court in handcuffs by the police.
The bottom line is that you do not need the police to return yourself on the warrant, and you are better off without them if you can manage it.
Nothing in this explanation is meant to suggest that if the police come to your door you should do anything other than cooperate when there is a warrant out for your arrest. At that point it is too late. But if you have the time and the choice to return yourself to Court even sooner than a police officer is trying to arrange, by all means do so. As far as the Court is concerned, the sooner you return yourself, the better.
Bail Jumping Charges
Bail jumping charges are a serious problem for people who are not citizens. Bail jumping has been found to be a crime of moral turpitude and therefore can create significant problems for non-citizens including the risk of removal from the United States. This problem is particularly serious because the District Attorney Offices have strict guidelines for the negotiations of bail jumping charges that don't often leave a lot of room for plea bargaining. If you have a warrant older the 30 days and you are not a United States citizen, you need legal advice fast.
In New York, it is a crime voluntarily to fail to return to Court when you are supposed to do so. The crime, called Bail Jumping, is something for which you can be separately prosecuted even if the original case is dismissed or if you go to trial and win the original case. The crime of Bail Jumping is not a completed crime until 30 days after the warrant is issued. That means that if you fail to return to court, but the police arrest you and return to court 29 days later, you have not committed the crime of bail jumping.
The warrant exists, the police can arrest you, and the judge can raise or even eliminate bail altogether, but you have not committed the crime of Bail Jumping. Strange as it may sound, too, Bail Jumping crimes do apply to situations in which you have been released ROR. You don't have to actually be out on bail to commit the crime of Bail Jumping.
The extra charge of bail jumping can place an enormous amount of leverage in the hands of the Government in terms of resolving the original case. For example, suppose a person warrants on robbery charge. Upon returning on the warrant he wants to go to trial on a case that might otherwise be a good case to try. Unfortunately, as a result of the bail jumping charge that the Government obtained while he was out on the warrant, he now has this second case to which he probably has no defense. The Government can now bargain from a position of great power since the Government knows that the defendant must resolve the bail jumping charge. It makes little sense to go to trial on the original case even with a high likelihood of success, if by doing so the Government will simply convict you of Bail Jumping and get you sent to prison for 1-3 years anyway.
Bail Jumping and Statute of Limitations Issues
One issue that frequently occurs in long-term warrant situations is statute of limitations problems with the bail jumping charge. Bail jumping is a crime, and like nearly every other crime, there are statute of limitation rules that limit how long the Government has to begin a case once it is aware of the crime.
Felony Bail Jumping charges, for example, carry a five year statute of limitations. Since the Government is obviously aware of the warrant, and indeed it is likely on the record requesting that a warrant be issued, the statute of limitations clock begins ticking the moment the crime is completed. Bail jumping is completed 30 days after the warrant is issued. Therefore, the Government has 5 years to begin the bail jumping case beginning 30 days after the warrant is issued. The defendant need not be present for the Government to begin its case. The Government is free to present the matter to a Grand Jury and seek an indictment for bail jumping at any time (30 days after the warrant is issued). Nevertheless, if the Government is ever going to do this, it must do it within 5 years.
This is why one of the first things to do as the attorney for a person returning on a case older than 5 years is to establish whether or not the Government ever obtained a Bail Jumping indictment within the statute of limitations period. Although the District Attorneys Offices in New York City have in recent years been much more active in obtaining bail jumping indictments, there is still actually a fairly decent likelihood that the bail jumping indictment will not have been sought. If that is the case, the Government is simply out of luck and will not be able to proceed.
Be advised that there are a few higher court cases here or there that question the applicability of the statutes of limitations to bail jumping, but the most substantial and best reasoned cases stand for the proposition that the statutes of limitations do apply to bail jumping situations. At the very least it is a strong argument. You would need the advice of a criminal defense lawyer to help you know whether a statute of limitations issue might exist in your particular case.
What is likely to happen to a person returned on a warrant.
For a felony warrant on a serious case, the importance of voluntarily returning can not be overestimated. An involuntary return on a serious felony warrant is highly likely to cause a judge to set substantial bail or even no bail at all (remand). A voluntary return with a lawyer on a serious felony warrant has a much higher likelihood of having bail set that might be able to be made by the family or in some cases where there is some plausible explanation, even a second try at ROR.
Even with a lawyer, however, judges are generally extremely unhappy about warrants in general, but warrants on felony cases even more so.
Judges are sensitive to the issue that delay caused by failing to return to court can work out to the advantage of a defendant in making it more difficult for the Government to prove a case that may have otherwise been provable when the witnesses were around.
Therefore, unless there is some extra special extraordinary explanation for the failure to return to Court on a serious felony charge, the person who warranted should reasonably expect that at the very least the judge may set bail equal to or greater than the amount originally set (and now presumably lost in bail forfeit). If the person is unable to make this bail, he or she could remain incarcerated until the matter is finally resolved, either by negotiation or by trial.
It will be the job, the tough job, of the lawyer to attempt to convince the judge to set an amount of bail that could be made by the defendant or the family on the return.