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Failure to Appear in Chicago Criminal Court


Judge Issuing a Bench Warrant for Failure to Appear

What You Need to Know About
Failure to Appear in Chicago Criminal Court

What happens if you have to appear in Cook County criminal court and you don't show up?

The answer is that it depends on what kind of case you have, the judge in charge of your case and what your reasons are for missing court. Generally, however, failure to appear in court on a criminal case triggers a predictable procedural pattern.

This guide will take you through everything you need to know about failure to appear in court including how to find out if you have an arrest warrant, how to change your court date and ways to get rid of a bench warrant without going to jail. While this is a high stakes and potentially dangerous of the law, the right work, insight and attention can get you through a failure to appear safely. 

Table of Contents:

I. What Happens If I Don't Show Up to Cook County Criminal Court?

II. I Didn't Show Up to Criminal Court, What Do I Do Now?

III. How to Get Rid of a Failure to Appear Bench Warrant Without Going to Jail

IV. What is the Worst That Can Happen If I Fail to Appear to Court and How Do I Prepare For It?

V. Frequently Asked Questions About Failure to Appear in Criminal and Traffic Court

VI. Final Thoughts: Pricing, Service Guarantees, Attorney Profile, Contact Info

I. What Happens If I Don't Show Up to Cook County Criminal Court?

When your case is called in court and neither you nor a lawyer representing you answers, the judge can do two things: issue an arrest warrant for failure to appear1 and forfeit your bond2. In addition, the prosecutor can charge you with the separate crime of "Violation of Bail Bond".3

If the judge issues an arrest warrant, it is entered into State and Federal databases. The federal arrest warrant database is called the National Crime Information Center Database (NCIC).The NCIC is accessible by police at every level, in all states; local, state and federal law enforcement all use this database.

Sometimes the bench warrant results in the Cook County Sherif going immediately to your home or work to arrest you, even on a misdemeanor.5

More often, however, the judge issues the warrant, it is entered into the databases and, years later during a routine traffic stop, flight or border crossing, the warrant pops up. You are then arrested, processed and have to appear back in court before the same judge that issued the warrant, this time in prison clothes.6

If you are arrested in another state, that state has the option to hold you for as long as thirty days while Cook County decides whether it wants to pay the expense of extraditing you back to Cook County.7

Example: Alpha is in a Wrigleyville bar on St. Patrick's day when, in celebration of a recent Chicago Cubs win, he snorts a line of cocaine at the bar. Unknown to Alpha at the time, a plain clothes Chicago Police Officer witnesses the whole thing. Alpha is arrested and must appear at Belmont and Western courthouse on charges of felony cocaine possession. Alpha doesn't show up and the judge issues an arrest warrant for failure to appear which is promptly entered into the NCIC.

Years later, Alpha crosses over into Canada on a ski trip with friends. Upon returning, U.S. Customs and Border Protection conducts a random check of Alpha's valid passport and the arrest warrant appears. Customs searches Alpha, locks him in a cell and contacts Cook County to determine if the warrant is valid. Customs also wants to know whether Cook County wishes to pay the expense of extraditing Alpha back to Chicago to answer for the failure to appear and the original cocaine possession. After 48 hours, Cook County responds that they do not wish to extradite and Alpha is released.

A graph showing the proportion of bond forfeiture arrest warrants.
30% (About 13,000) of the 44,000 Outstanding Warrants the Cook County Sheriff Holds are Bond Forfeiture Warrants. The State of Warrants in Cook County, April 2017

II. I Didn't Show Up to Criminal Court, What Do I Do Now?

The first thing to do in case of a failure to appear is to find out exactly what action the judge took. The best way to do this is to go to the Cook County Court Clerk and pull the paper file of your case. Phone calls to the clerk to determine this information are not as reliable as seeing what the judge actually wrote down and what order was placed in your file.

It is possible that the judge only forfeited your bond but did not issue an arrest warrant. In this case, it is still important to get a clear idea of what the judge did and the only way to do that is to go directly to the source, the actual case file. You can usually do this at the Clerk's criminal department on the 10th floor of Chicago's Daly Center at 50 West Washington. But, depending on your case, your file may be held at the criminal courthouse at 26th and California or any of the branch courthouses in Skokie, Rolling Meadows, Maywood, Bridgeview or Markham.8

If the judge did issue a warrant it will be reflected in the file as a "Bond Forfeiture Warrant" or BFW. If that's the case, it is best to appear before the judge as fast as possible. No matter what you've heard, an arrest warrant will never go away and it does not expire. It follows you the rest of your life and it crosses state and country lines. It is much better to deal with a warrant in court, where the judge might reinstate your original bond, rather than deal with a warrant after being picked up by police, which would involve spending hours and possibly days in custody being processed.

Finally, if the judge did issue an arrest warrant, it will either have a new bond attached to it, or, it could be a "No Bond" warrant. "No Bond" or "No Bail" warrants are mandatory for failure to appear to a felony court date9, but can also attach to failure to appear in a misdemeanor.

If it is a new bond, note the amount and be ready to post it. If it is a "no bond" warrant, it is even more important to get your case in front of a judge where he can at least reconsider the "no bond" status. Law enforcement cannot do this, so if police execute the warrant before you can get to court, you will spend time in custody before you even get to a judge.

A bar graph showing types of charges on which warrants for failure to appear are issued; drug charges lead the pack.
Most Cook County Bond Forfeiture Warrants are for Missing Court on Drug Charges. The State of Warrants in Cook County, April 2017

III. How to Get Rid of a Failure to Appear Bench Warrant Without Going to Jail

In either case, whether it's a bond forfeiture, arrest warrant, or both, a written motion asking the court to vacate the bond forfeiture and to quash and recall the bench warrant should be filed. When the motion is filed, you can and should move any existing court date up. The sooner you appear in court after a failure to appear, the better. You should not wait until the next court date if one is scheduled.

If you have a "good reason" for missing court, the written motion is a good place to reference it.

What is a "good reason" for missing court?10 This is where many people, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, who don't understand criminal law get in trouble. For example, sometimes the reason given that the Defendant could not appear at their court date is because they live "out of state". The problem with this is that a condition of every bond in an Illinois criminal case is that you not leave the state without the court's permission.11 Take a look at your bond slip and you will see a list of conditions in fine print, listed on the left side of the page, about half way down. One of these conditions is that you not leave the State of Illinois without the court's permission.

Note that if you live out of state, it is usually not a problem to get permission to go home during the pendency of your case. The problem arises when you leave the state without getting the court's permission. If you do get the court's permission, it is important to carry a copy of the court's order on you at all times while your case is going on.

The other issue that often arises in these hearings is giving a reason for missing court and just expecting the judge to take your word for it. Those who have failed to appear bear the burden of proof.12 In order to meet this burden, one must provide evidence supporting the claim: a doctor's report, a hospital receipt, an affidavit or a witness, to name just a few examples.

At court, there will be a brief oral presentation on the motion after which the judge can decide from any of several options. 

Ideally, the judge will grant the motion totally, meaning he recalls the arrest warrant, vacates the bond forfeiture and reinstates your original bond. So, if you had an I-Bond, the judge would simply reinstate your I-Bond and you don't have to put any money up for bond or go through processing in the court's holding cell. The sooner you appear before the judge after a missed court appearance, the more likely this will happen.

If this happens, make sure to keep the court order with you at all times. This way, in case someone forgets to remove your warrant from the the database, you have proof that it is no longer valid. This kind of mixup can and does happen quite often so it is important to be prepared for it.

Note that it is important to not only recall the warrant, but also, to vacate the bond forfeiture. Often, attorneys ask to quash and recall the warrant but forget about the bond forfeiture. A bond forfeiture means you are civilly liable for the full amount of your bond. This can affect your credit history, cause problems in the refund of your bond once the case is finished and can cause problems in the future if you are ever arrested again.

IV. What is the Worst That Can Happen If I Fail to Appear to Court and How Do I Prepare For It?

In addition to recalling the warrant and reinstating your original bond, the judge can also recall the warrant but increase your original bond or put you on electronic home monitoring; you should be prepared for this with cash on hand.

The worst possible action the judge can take is revoking your bond totally and requiring you to remain in custody pending the resolution of your case. This is a more extreme judicial remedy, but it does happen, especially in felonies. It is more likely to happen, however, in cases where the warrant is executed and less likely to happen when you are proactive and motion the case up before the warrant is executed.

So what will the judge do? Which course of action the judge takes depends on the nature of your case, what your reasons are for missing court, how they are presented and, perhaps most importantly, the attitude and temperament of the judge on the bench that day. 

Often, if the Defendant is proactive and presents an effective case supported by the evidence, the judge will do the right thing and reinstate the original bond.

But the court room is a place where one must be prepared for things to "go wrong". I have seen defendants with legitimate reasons for missing court, facing relatively minor misdemeanors have their bond revoked and their lives seriously disrupted. This is often due to the particular temperament of the judge, his mood on that day or even something as seemingly insignificant as the time of day in which the case is heard.13

In such a case, there are two "safety valve" actions.

The first is a motion to reconsider. As stated above, the judge may have acted harshly for any number of reasons. Given time to cool off and reflect, he may decide differently.

The second safety valve action in case of the judge revoking the Defendant's bond is to negotiate with the prosecutor to dismiss the case totally. Prosecutors are often reasonable people who want to do justice so long as it honors their duty to vigorously prosecute crime. This procedure is most feasible on misdemeanors where the complaining witness has expressed a desire to not press charges. 

One must be prepared to effectively present the case for dismissal to the prosecutor, and that involves knowing the Defendant's life story, as well as his reasons for missing court, and presenting it effectively, preferably with a mitigation packet. For more on effective negotiations read my guide on deal-making in criminal cases.

Example: Bravo is a French citizen. While in the U.S. on a student visa, Bravo hits Charlie during a fight over a woman. He is arrested, charged with battery and a court date is set requiring Bravo to appear at Chicago's 5555 W. Grand courthouse.

Bravo promptly finishes his semester and flies back home to France. Bravo knows that Charlie does not wish to press charges. Not able to afford to return to the U.S., Bravo hires Attorney to appear for him. Attorney advises Bravo of the risk, but decides to move forward anyway as it is the best he can do.

At the court date, Attorney presents the reasons for Bravo's absence and supplies the judge with written evidence of Bravo's French citizenship, student visa and financial situation. While some judges would excuse the absence, decline to issue an arrest warrant and dismiss the trespassing case, the judge on the bench that day is angered by what he perceives to be Bravo's disrespect. The judge refuses to dismiss the case and sets a court date for Bravo to appear. Bravo appears at the next court date and the judge orders him arrested and held without bond pending the resolution of his case. Despite Attorney's request to reconsider, the judge holds to his decision.

Attorney then conferences with the prosecutor on the case. After negotiations in which Attorney presents Bravo's mitigation packet to the prosecutor, the prosecutor voluntarily dismisses the case. The judge is powerless to hold Bravo and he is free to go back to France.

V. Frequently Asked Questions About Failure to Appear in Criminal and Traffic Court

I know I Can't Make it to Court, Can I Change My Court Date to an Earlier or Later Date?

Probably. If you know you won't make it to court, your lawyer can file a motion to advance and reset the court date. The judge can always deny the request, but usually they will grant it if there is a good reason supported by evidence. This is a much cleaner option than waiting until the scheduled court date and missing it without taking action beforehand.

If you do this, it is much better to move the court date up to a sooner date rather than to a later date. It not only looks better, it also avoids the possibility of a clerical error where the judge approves the later date, but the clerk fails to strike the original date. This error can result in the file remaining on the original date's court call, the case being called and an arrest warrant issuing for failure to appear. Once the error is brought to the court's attention, it is resolved, but by then, the damage has already been done, especially if the warrant has been executed. If you must move it to a later rather than an earlier date, it can be done, but your lawyer will need to be extra vigilant in ensuring no mistakes are made.

I Got a Speeding Ticket Saying I Must Appear. What Happens if I Don't Show Up to Traffic Court?

First, make sure that your ticket is only a traffic, non-criminal matter. Many tickets that look like a "traffic case" are actually criminal and are therefore subject to all the harsh penalties for failure to appear in court detailed in this guide. For example, driving 26 mph or more over the speed limit is a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by 180 days in jail and a $1500 fine.

If your ticket is punishable by fine only, making it non-criminal, the judge can then either enter a conviction or issue a warrant for your arrest.14  The judge can also continue the case once for thirty (30) days before entering a conviction or issuing an arrest warrant.15

The failure to appear is then reported to the Illinois Secretary of State who will then suspend your driver's license.16 If you are an out state driver, the failure to appear and conviction is reported to the licensing authority in your state, and they will take action according to your state's law.

Failure to appear in traffic court can be corrected by filing a motion and paying a $45 fee.17 Motions filed within 30 days after judgment is entered are often granted. After 30 days, these motions are granted only if due diligence and a meritorious defense is shown. After 2 years, the only way to remove the conviction is to prove the ticket was issued to someone else.

I Am An Out of State Driver, Can I Send a Lawyer to Traffic Court or Do I Have to Appear Personally?

This is highly dependent on the judge in charge on your court date, but the rules allow it given a valid legal reason.18 Generally speaking, however, this is a regular practice in traffic tickets and I often even see it done in criminal speeding cases, especially those heard in Chicago's Daly Center.

It is important in such a case for the client to execute a notarized power of attorney authorizing the lawyer to enter a plea of guilty and request supervision. It is also the better practice to have the client execute an affidavit attesting that he qualifies for supervision. 

Will an Arrest Warrant Show Up In a Different State?

If you were fingerprinted, almost definitely yes.

Once the judge issues an arrest warrant, it is entered into a centralized database called the National Crime Information Center Database (NCIC). Law enforcement at every level around the country can access this database.

There is some debate on whether some misdemeanor warrants are entered in the NCIC. Indeed, the standards for entry into the database limit entry of misdemeanor warrants to only "serious" misdemeanors; the problem, however, is that NCIC standards define "serious" as any offense for which you have been fingerprinted.19

Does a Warrant for Failure to Appear Show Up on an Employment Background Check?

Again, if you were fingerprinted, the answer is almost definitely yes. Employment background checks are rapidly evolving. Almost gone are the days when employment background checks were limited to volunteered data such as birthday and social security number. These days, employers use fingerprints to search your background. This is especially true in competitive, sensitive and highly regulated industries such as nursing, teaching, medicine, law and pharmacy.

How Do I Know if I Have an Arrest Warrant for Failure to Appear?

Although some counties have online databases that the general public can access to search for an arrest warrant, these are not always accurate. Some agencies have better systems than others, but even the better ones, such as Will County and the Illinois State Police sites are often incomplete.

The best way to really know is to pull the actual file for the case and see what action the judge took. See part II of this guide "I Didn't Show Up to Criminal Court, What Do I Do Now?" for more information on this.

Another option is to do a check on yourself. For fastest results, use an FBI-approved channeler, such as National Background Check, Inc. If you do choose this route, be careful; you are submitted fingerprint data to law enforcement.

Do They Check for Arrest Warrants When You Fly?

Traditionally, most domestic flights have not been checked for failure to appear warrants. There have, however, been signs in government reports that the screening process for domestic flyers may include checking for arrest warrants.20

For international flights, the answer is a definite "Yes". If you have an arrest warrant, especially if its for a felony, you will be found out and arrested if you try to fly internationally.

Can I Get Into Canada or Mexico With an Arrest Warrant?

Canada and Mexico will know if you have an arrest warrant, will bar you from from entering and may even arrest you to determine if the jurisdiction issuing the warrant wants to extradite you.

American law enforcement shares arrest warrant information with Canadian law enforcement through the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) which is accessible to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).21 Even without an arrest warrant, Canada will refuse entry to Americans convicted, or even charged, with any number of offenses including DUI, shoplifting, drug offenses and many others.

As for Mexico, their standards for entry and inadmissibility are less clear than Canada's, however, I know anecdotally from credible sources that entry into Mexico with an active arrest warrant will cause problems in direct proportion to the seriousness of the offense.

VI. Final Thoughts: Pricing, Service Guarantees, Attorney Profile, Contact Info

If you have failed to appear in criminal or traffic court, it may be tempting to not do anything and hope for the best. Eventually, however, whether it's during a job application, routine traffic stop or a border crossing, it will come back to hurt you. It is therefore much better to handle it on your terms rather than be forced into it.

For information on fees and how you should expect to be treated during your case read the pricing policy and service guarantees. For information on the author, read the attorney profile page.

If after reading this page you would like more information specific to your facts, you may call 312.396.4112 or contact me online

Legal References

1. 725 ILCS 5/110-7(i), 725 ILCS 5/110-3: the court "shall" issue an arrest warrant for defendants charged with felonies and "may" issue an arrest warrant for those who fail to appear on misdemeanors.

There are over 40,000 outstanding warrants in Cook County. About 30% of these, or about 13,000, are bond forfeiture warrants; most of these are bond forfeiture warrants on drug charges. The State of Warrants in Cook County, Full Report, April 4, 2017.

2. 725 ILCS 5/110-7(g). Note that bail is forfeited on the day you fail to appear, a "Notice of Bond Forfeiture Letter" is mailed to your last known address and then, thirty (30) days later, judgment on the bond forfeiture is entered.

3. 720 ILCS 5/32-10

4. 55 ILCS 5/3-6019 commands law enforcement to enter warrants into both state and federal databases. The Illinois database is called the Illinois Law Enforcement Agencies Data System (LEADS). The federal database is called the National Crime Information Center Database (NCIC) and is accessible to law enforcement at every level of government as well as to foreign states such as Canada and Mexico. Note that not every arrest or warrant is entered into this database. If, however, you were fingerprinted at any stage of your case, your warrant will likely enter into the NCIC. See "Categories of individuals covered by the system".

5. 55 ILCS 5/3-6019, sherifs are charged with serving and executing arrest warrants.

6. 725 ILCS 5/110-6(f)(5), defendants upon whom an arrest warrant for failure to appear has been executed must appear in the same court that issues the bench warrant.

7. 725 ILCS 225, Uniform Criminal Extradition Act.

8. A list of all courthouses can be found with the Cook County Court Clerk.

9. 725 ILCS 5/110-3

10. 725 ILCS 5/110-3 requires the defendant prove by a preponderance of the evidence his failure to appear was not intentional in order to receive bond.

11. 725 ILCS 5/110-10

12. Id.

13. A fascinating study of decisions made in Israeli parole board hearings found that judges granted about 66% of applications made to them in the morning, but, as the hours passed, this number declined to almost zero. After meal breaks, the number of granted petitions again rose, only to decline the longer the judges went without a break. See, I Think It's Time We Broke For Lunch, The Economist, April 14, 2011. See also, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, by Daniel Pink.

14. Illinois Supreme Court Rule 556

15. Id.

16. 625 ILCS 5/6–306.3, 6-308 

17. "Failure to Appear in Court on Fine Only Violations", State of Illinois, Circuit Court of Cook County

18. Illinois Supreme Court Rule 556

19. See Footnote #4

20. 2016 Data Mining Report to Congress, Dept. of Homeland Security, April 2017

21. Canadian Travel Restrictions Based on Criminal Record, Collateral Consequences Resource Center, June 18, 2015

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