Judge: The Good, the bad and the ugly of not appearing in court

Judge Lyle Riggs. Photo by Michelle Chance

By Judge Lyle Riggs

The number of people who do not appear for a court date or who do not comply with court orders is astonishing.

By not appearing in court or complying with court orders, people forfeit important rights, make a relatively simple matter become extremely difficult, and risk losing cars and going to jail. More jail time is served in misdemeanor cases for failing to appear in court or failing to comply with court orders than for the actual offense itself.

The Maricopa/Stanfield Justice Court and the Maricopa Municipal Court would like to see this change. These courts will be offering a special opportunity to get into compliance and have arrest warrants quashed to anyone who has missed a court date or who has failed to comply with a previous court order.

An opportunity to get into compliance

The courts will have a special court day on Saturday, May 20, from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Anyone with an outstanding arrest warrant from either court may come to court on this day. The courts will quash the warrant and enter new compliance orders. Anyone coming to court that day must be prepared to comply with court orders going forward, which may include making payments on fines, and completing court ordered counseling. The courts may not resolve a case completely that day, but they will provide a path to compliance and resolution of the case, and eliminate the risk of being arrested on an outstanding warrant.

On an on-going basis, the Maricopa/Stanfield Justice Court and Maricopa Municipal Court have walk-in court every morning at 8:30 a.m. Anyone who has failed to appear or is not in compliance with a prior court order may come to court any morning, appear before a judge, and get new orders. Anyone wanting to appear must be in the courthouse before 8:30 a.m. This is better than the alternatives.

Missing court or failing to comply with court orders is just not a good idea. It makes resolving any case more difficult. But, if you have, please take advantage of one of these opportunities to get back into compliance. Otherwise, things may go from bad to ugly very quickly.

The good of not appearing in court

None! There is nothing good about not appearing in court. It only makes matters worse.

A party that knows in advance that it cannot attend a scheduled court date may file, in person at the courthouse or by mail (not by fax), a written request for a new court date (a motion to continue). The motion to continue must explain why the party cannot attend. The courts are very likely to grant a first request. Subsequent requests are less likely to be granted, but for very good reasons could be granted as well.

These requests must be filed as soon as possible, but at least seven to 10 days before the scheduled appearance. A party is not excused from attending the scheduled date until it receives an order from the court giving a new date. That is why it is important to make the request as soon as possible.

In truly extreme cases, if a party is unable to attend because of something unforeseen, in other words, an emergency, the party must call the court as soon as possible, file a written request for a new date, and include proof of the emergency with the written request.

Even in this situation, a party is not automatically excused from attending a scheduled court date until it receives a new order with a new court date, but these requests are routinely granted the first time. A party that has not received a written order within two to three weeks of making a call must appear during walk-in court.

All parties have the option to engage an attorney to appear for the party. But, even then, the court has to agree to waive your presence. This is frequently done for initial and preliminary matters. Eventually, however, you will need to appear, unless there are some very unusual circumstances, to resolve the matter.

If you do not appear as ordered or comply with court orders, then this is where things start to get bad. The same is true of not complying with court orders, things just go from bad to ugly.

The bad of not appearing in court or not complying — civil traffic cases

Bad things happen, and quickly, when a party fails to appear in court, does not make a written request, and does not receive a written order from the court giving a new date to appear.

A party that fails to appear for a civil traffic violation or violations, and who did not pay the fine or attended driving school prior to that date, loses the right to a civil traffic hearing. Additionally, by law, a default judgment will be entered, fines and collection costs will be imposed, and the party’s driving privileges will be suspended.

The court does not do this immediately in case there was an emergency. But, this does typically happen within seven to ten days of the scheduled court date, but it can happen sooner. As explained, in the event of an emergency, contact the court as soon as possible.

When a default judgment is entered against a party, the party is also placed in Arizona’s Fines and Restitution Enforcement program (F.A.R.E.). (Anyone placed in this program will think it is anything but fair.) As part of being placed in FARE, $35 is added to the fine, plus 19% of this new balance. A $200 fine for speeding becomes a $303.45 fine. The statutory minimum fine of $992 for not having insurance becomes a $1,245 fine.

The state also has a program in place that allows courts to intercept state income tax refunds. There is an added cost to this. In other words, if the court intercepts $200, the fines will not be reduced by $200. First, there is a cost that is deducted and then the balance is applied to fine. Any remaining balance must still be paid and the person will have paid more than the original amount.

Finally, a default judgment prevents a party from conducting business with the Motor Vehicle Division (MVD). This affects the ability, for example, to register vehicles and transfer car titles.

Driving a car without current registration is another common civil traffic ticket. Then the process starts again. This is only the beginning of bad!

And if that is not bad enough … a default judgment for civil traffic violations also suspends a driver’s driving privileges. To get driving privileges reinstated, all or most of the now higher fine must be paid. Then the driver will need to go to MVD and pay a reinstatement fee to have driving privileges restored—not a quick15 to 20 minute event.

Driving with suspended driving privileges is a criminal offense, a class 1 misdemeanor. The common fine for this offense is about $350. And now, things start to get ugly!

The ugly of not appearing in court or not complying — civil traffic cases

Additionally, Arizona law requires law enforcement agencies to seize the vehicle being driven by someone whose driving privileges are suspended. While some law enforcement agencies do not always do this, some are very strict about enforcing this statute.

A driver could be left standing on the side of the road holding a brand new ticket while watching the driver’s vehicle being towed away. The driver can read and re-read the ticket while waiting for a ride. And it is still going to get worse.

A vehicle impounded because the driver’s privileges is generally held for 30 days. (A co-owner with valid driving privileges may be able to get the car out sooner for the first impoundment.) Otherwise the car will remain impounded for 30 days. To get it out, the driver must pay the towing and impound fees (several hundreds of dollars), present proof of insurance, current registration, and … reinstated driving privileges.

To get driving privileges reinstated, of course, the driver will have to pay the now higher original fine, go sit in an MVD office for an hour or more, and pay a reinstatement fee. And it is still getting worse.

The driver is now facing a criminal charge, which will mostly like result in having additional fines imposed and creating a criminal record. And, to resolve the criminal charge, the driver must appear in court. Ignoring this court date … well things are going to get real ugly.

The ugly of not appearing in court — criminal traffic & criminal cases

The court will issue an arrest warrant for anyone who misses a court date or fails to comply with court orders.

If arrested on the warrant, a person may spend one or more nights in jail. Generally, a person found guilty of a misdemeanor offense is ordered to pay a fine. With the exception of driving under the influence cases, a person found guilty of a misdemeanor is rarely ordered to serve jail time. Consequently, a person who fails to appear in court for a misdemeanor charge may be imposing a more severe sentence on him- or herself, than the court would impose.

Once arrested, the court may require a person to post bond as a condition of release in order to secure the person’s appearance for the next court date. The amount of the bond is often more than the amount of the fine that would be imposed.

If a secured bond is required, the person is required to pay a bondsman. What is paid to the bondsman is a cost that generally is not recovered. Alternatively, a person may post the full bond. This is in effect the same as posting a cash bond. If a cash bond is required, the person has to deposit the full amount with the court.

If the bond is not posted, a person may spend ten or more days in jail waiting for a court date. If a person is found not guilty, then the jail time was completely unnecessary. If the person, is found guilty, the state may agree to give the person credit for time served, but even then the sentence will be more severe than what it would have been had the person simply appeared in court as scheduled.

If bond is posted, the court may hold it until the matter is resolved. This could take four to six months. This means the court could hold a person’s money, an amount greater than the potential fine, for an extended period of time. This could interfere with vacation plans, paying rent, or paying other essential bills.

Spending time in jail to resolve misdemeanor charges or posting bond to get out of jail is an inconvenience that could be avoided by simply appearing in court as ordered. Still worse is spending time in jail after a sentence has been imposed in a criminal case.

As previously explained, the most common sentence for a person found guilty of a misdemeanor offense is imposition of a fine. If a person is not able to pay a fine immediately, the court can arrange a monthly payment plan. As long as the full monthly payment is made on time, no other consequences are imposed. But if a person misses a payment, the court may issue an arrest warrant and place the person in FARE.

As explained, in FARE the amounts go up. Also, the courts may intercept income tax refunds to pay these fines.

In some cases, the court may reduce the fine for time served. But, in many cases the fines are mandatory fines that have to be paid. In those cases serving jail time does nothing to reduce the fine. The person is merely serving time and still having to pay the same fines as before.

This is also true if the sentence required a person to complete counseling or some other non-monetary sanction. If the person does not comply, then an arrest warrant will be issued. Time served does not eliminate the requirement. It just becomes an added sentence and the person still must comply with the original requirements.

There is simply nothing good about missing a court date or failing to comply with court orders. It only makes a difficult situation become bad, or worse still ugly.

For anyone facing new charges please do not let things go from difficult to bad to ugly. Just come to court and follow the process.

For anyone who has already missed a court date or failed to comply with court please come to court. This will minimize the consequences and create a path to compliance. Please come in any morning before 8:30 a.m. or on Saturday, May 20, from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Lyle Riggs is justice of the peace for Maricopa/Stanfield Justice Court and magistrate of Maricopa Municipal Court.

This column appears in part in the May issue of InMaricopa.