Most people show up to court as required, but when people fail to appear at their hearing it can have serious consequences. It is inconvenient for court staff who must reschedule the hearing, and inefficient for courts, which manage already crowded dockets. Failing to appear can also lead to a warrant, arrest and jail time for people, even when nonappearance was not intentional. Often, failure to appear is related to something as simple as forgetting about the hearing or because of challenges such as lack of transportation and childcare or an inability to arrange for time off work.
State law provides the framework for what tools and discretion courts have to respond to a defendant’s failure to appear. Increasingly, state laws have started to focus on more proactive strategies to reduce instances of failing to appear in court and provide courts with different or less punitive ways to address failure to appear.
Court reminders have been shown to be effective at reducing failure-to-appear rates. A call, text message, email or other communication with a reminder of the date and location of a person’s next scheduled court hearing can greatly impact whether a person makes it to court or not.
These reminders can be implemented at the local, county or state level—currently, at least six states including Alaska, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, Texas and Washington have enacted legislation to mandate the creation of statewide court reminder systems.
Additionally, Maryland and West Virginia require court reminders for local pretrial services programs established in accordance with state law. States like Hawaii and Oregon have also implemented statewide systems without specific legislative authorization or requirement.
Warrant Grace Periods
A warrant grace period provides a specified amount of time for a person to correct a missed appearance before a warrant is issued. Several states have enacted some form of warrant grace period legislation.
For example, Michigan codified a 48-hour grace period for defendants who failed to appear in court excluding assaultive or domestic violence charges. The law created a rebuttable presumption that a court must wait 48 hours before issuing a warrant to allow time for the defendant to voluntarily appear. If a court decides to issue an immediate warrant under the allowed circumstances in the law, they must make a record of the reason for the departure from the presumption. If the defendant does not appear within 48 hours, the court is required to issue a warrant unless the court believes there is good reason to schedule the case for hearing instead.
Connecticut law restricts courts from issuing warrants for failure to appear until 4 p.m. on the day of the scheduled appearance unless there is good cause to issue the warrant sooner. Georgia also restricts the issuance of warrants to the end of the day.
Limiting Driver's License Suspensions
One common response to failure to appear is suspension of a driver’s license. At least 40 states authorize suspension of a defendant’s driving privileges for failing to appear or respond to a citation.
However, many states are changing license suspension laws, recognizing that suspending driving privileges can be a barrier to employment or compliance with court obligations. Since 2017, at least eight states have prohibited license suspension as a penalty for failing to appear.
Utah, for example, broadly prohibited license revocation solely for failure to appear. Exceptions to the law allow for revocation in cases where the charges include a moving traffic violation, insurance related charges or charges that would require mandatory revocation of a license upon conviction such as vehicular manslaughter or driving under the influence.
Colorado enacted legislation prohibiting license revocation for several reasons including missing court on a traffic violation or municipal court violations committed when the person was under 18 years of age.
Other states, including Arkansas and Louisiana, have instituted grace periods before a license is suspended for failure to appear, while Florida requires courts to host “driver’s license reinstatement day” programs.
In addition to court reminders, grace periods and changes to driver’s license suspensions, a few states have enacted legislation addressing innovative court-appearance policies.
Minnesota authorized “sign-and-release” warrants for failure to appear. The new warrants do not require arrest or bail, but instead have officers to provide notification of the missed date and a new notice that includes a time to appear.
Recognizing that defendants in jail or prison at the time of their court date should not be penalized for failing to appear when in custody, Oklahoma enacted legislation requiring dismissal of any warrants or criminal charges for failing to appear for those who can show they missed court due to incarceration or detention. Finally, Colorado prohibits the issuance of warrants entirely for defendants who fail to appear on traffic infractions.