A bench warrant in Pennsylvania is a specific type of warrant that can be doled out in either civil or criminal courts. If you’re wondering what they are and how to handle one, we’ll look at the basics of the bench warrant, why they’re issued, and the best ways to respond if you want to avoid being arrested.

What Is a Bench Warrant in PA?

Bench warrants are warrants issued by a judge or district magistrate for those in contempt of court. (The name of the warrant is derived from the fact that a judge will typically give it from their bench.) These can only be given if the person has deliberately violated an order of the court or a condition bestowed by the Judge or District Magistrate.

Once the warrant is issued, it gives law enforcement the authority to immediately arrest a person on-site. So whether it’s at your home or during a routine traffic stop, these professionals can take swift action.

Is a Bench Warrant Based on the Suspicion of Criminal Activity?

No. An arrest warrant is based on the suspicion of criminal activity, but a bench warrant is not. This is essentially a consequence of a pre-existing offense and not a condemnation of potential activities undertaken by the individual in their private lives.

Bench Warrant Regulations in Pennsylvania

The order must be issued within 60 days of the offense and can only be issued if the person had notice of the requirements. In other words, the court can’t charge a person if they never received verbal or written information regarding the order.

Proof of notice is defined by the following:

  • A signed receipt by the party that contained a notice of a court date.
  • A documented issuance of a court order that was handed directly to the party.
  • A documented issuance of a court order that was handed directly to a third party (sometimes called a competent adult). Please note that the third party cannot be a relative of the party in question.

So if a person signed a document that acknowledged and agreed to their court date, there will be very little room for negotiation if the person willingly ignored the order. However, if the documentation was sent in the mail and subsequently lost by the post office, this would be a different matter under Pennsylvania state law. In some cases, such as that of a subpoena, a mailed notice is only considered valid if the person sends back a signed acknowledgment.

Bench Warrants in Different Types of Cases

Bench warrants aren’t always a cut-and-dry matter in the state. As with any legal proceeding, there are nuances based on the individual in question.

Criminal Cases  

Criminal charges are typically taken more seriously than civil. If the person fails to appear in a criminal court, the consequences are ultimately up to the judge. They may decide to issue a ‘default in required in appearance,’ which may be classified as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

Summary Cases  

Summary cases are a type of criminal case, but the term is reserved for lower-level crimes. This may include harassment, loitering, or disorderly conduct. Summary offenses may be allowed to proceed without the defendant present.

Failing to appear in court may not provide the best outcome in terms of judgment (because the person won’t be there to share their side of the story), but at least it won’t result in a bench warrant. In the case that the summary judgment can’t proceed without the person, a standard bench warrant will be issued.

Preliminary Hearings 

A preliminary hearing will take place directly after the offense occurs. It’s a process that determines whether there’s enough evidence to try the individual based on the accusation. For instance, if a person was accused of loitering outside an establishment, but it was found that the person who called the police was a family member with a known grudge, the judge at the preliminary hearing might dismiss the case altogether.

Despite why a charge may have been filed, the individual is expected to appear at the preliminary hearing. Should they fail to show up without a sufficient excuse, the judge may issue a bench warrant for their arrest.

Outliers and Extenuating Circumstances

Bench warrants can be issued if a person doesn’t appear in court for both misdemeanors and felonies, but they can also be issued if the judge gives the individual a choice in how they settle their offense. For instance, not all people are taken into custody immediately, particularly if they have to attend to family matters or other critical responsibilities before serving a sentence.

If the judge does give the person the option to self-surrender and they fail to do so by the appropriate deadline, a bench warrant will be issued, most likely in accordance with the crime in question (e.g., a misdemeanor bench warrant if the crime was a misdemeanor).

What Are Some Common Reasons a Bench Warrant Might Be Issued?

In Pennsylvania, bench warrants can be issued for any number of reasons, including probation violations, court attendance absences, or a failure to pay required fines. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of variation when it comes to the details of bench warrants. Some will be relatively straightforward in that the person knowingly and willingly defied a court order. Others will be complicated by extenuating circumstances, such as emergencies.

For instance, let’s say that you live in Pennsylvania and you need to appear in court. However, you’re unable to attend due to a serious illness, one that makes it impossible to get in touch with the powers that be to reschedule. Or you might be ordered to pay child support every month, but you lose your job and you’re unable to make the payment. Despite trying to work out a plan with the other parent, they file a grievance so you’re held in contempt of court.

The judge will take into account the situation and determine whether the defendant had good cause for failing to comply with court orders.

How to Handle a Bench Warrant in Pennsylvania

Time is of the essence in this case. Once you know a warrant is issued for your arrest, it becomes necessary to work with the courts to avoid serious penalties. Regardless of which county the order was issued, the charges in Pennsylvania can be up to $15,000 and seven years of imprisonment, depending on the classification of the warrant.

No matter what, if a judge isn’t available to hear the case, the person will be held in jail until the judge is available unless the person can make bail. This could be up to 72 hours, unless the time period ends on a non-business day. In that case, the courts may be able to hold you for more than 72 hours.

A defense attorney is highly recommended in the case of a bench warrant. Trying to represent yourself in these matters can easily lead to more trouble. Getting the right legal advice is critical to your outcome, particularly regarding whether you’re taken into custody.

There’s also the potential of putting the whole matter behind you in certain cases. You have the right to a fast and fair trial and certain delays, such as the issuance of the warrant, can be grounds for dismissal. An expert in Pennsylvania state law will have all the information they need to argue these cases, so it can end in a quick resolution.

Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney

When you call an attorney, you take the first step to fight for your rights. Bench warrants, whether given in connection to a DUI charge or a loitering case, can have serious consequences for an individual and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

A good lawyer will ask their client all the right questions and gather evidence that will support their case. They’ll find information that shows good cause as to why an order wasn’t followed or why the order was never valid to begin with. When you contact us today, we can start identifying the strategies that free you from the stress of it all.