Every state has stiff penalties for failure to appear when the court has required you to do so. The logic behind this is obvious – without stiff penalties, many people would interfere with their cases going forward by failing to appear. This is especially true for persons who are facing severe penalties and who are on trial for significant crimes.
California Penal Codes 853.7 and 853.8 both cover the failure to appear, by setting the minimum charges. If you fail to appear for a registered court date, you are guilty of a misdemeanor. As your court is already in session and your guilt or innocence is physically apparent to the presiding judge, you will not have a trial to determine your guilt – the judge simply declares you guilty of this crime by virtue of the fact that he does not see you at the scheduled hearing.
The judge will now issue a bench warrant (so called because it is issued from the bench) for your arrest. This gives the police the right to arrest you if they can find you, and detain you until your next hearing – even if that hearing is weeks or months away. California law also enables the court to assess a penalty of no less than $15 to cover any expenses and inconvenience you have caused by creating this delay.
And It Gets Worse
If you receive a failure to appear without just cause (which was a condition of your bail), then your bail may very well be revoked. This means that the court may opt to keep any money you have posted for bail, in addition to issuing the warrant for your arrest. If you have used a bail agency, then they may hire a bounty hunter to have you brought in order to protect their surety bond. If you are allowed back out on bail, the face amount may be increased to encourage your appearance in the future.
Failure to appear is a serious crime in the eye of the courts and so it generally has severe effects in the future. It is an mark on your criminal record, and while it is only a misdemeanor, it usually guarantees a brief jail sentence in the local house of corrections. Going forward, you will have more difficulty getting bail, and the bail amounts will be higher and more difficult to post. You may also have bail denied when it might otherwise have been granted.
It’s Always Better to Show Up
Your best option then is to appear, despite the potential dangers you may face at a hearing or trial. If you do fail to appear, the court is generally only willing to set aside this new charge if you can prove that there was something that was physically keeping you from appearing. In general, the only two excuses that are accepted are that you are imprisoned for another crime or that you are undergoing emergency medical treatment.
Outside of those exceptions, you are expected to file a “continuance,” prior to your time to appear. This is a legal notice to the court stating that you cannot appear, explaining why, and giving them forewarning. If you have a lawyer, contacting him or her at least 24 hours before your court date should be enough for them to file a continuance on your behalf.