When someone misses a court date, the judge can do one of three things, two of which are bad. First, the judge could continue the case to a later date and notify you of the new hearing (not bad); second, the judge could try you in your absence and, more than likely, find you guilty of a criminal charge and impose a fine plus court costs (bad); and third, the judge may issue a warrant for your arrest (very bad).
When a warrant for someone’s arrest is issued, either by a judge for failing to appear in court, or initially by a magistrate as mentioned above, the warrant does not fade away with time. It will remain open and actionable until it is either a) dismissed by the court (which is extremely rare), or b) the individual is arrested or turns themselves in. Our attorneys have received phone calls from individuals, some who have moved out of state, who have warrants as old as ten or fifteen years.
But isn’t there a statute of limitations?
This is a very common misconception. A statute of limitations applies only to the time required in which to file a criminal charge; they have no effect on open or outstanding warrants. In Virginia, there are no statutes of limitation in regards to felony offenses. The Commonwealth Attorney’s Office may file a felony charge whenever they gather enough evidence to support the charge, whether it takes one week, one month or fifty years. For misdemeanors, charges must be filed within 12 months of the alleged offense date.
But I live in another state. Why should I care?
Being in another state with an outstanding Virginia warrant may actually make your situation worse, if you are ever discovered by your local authorities. While Virginia police may stop looking for you, and the warrant may actually go dormant (not dismissed), the warrant is still in the national database of wanted individuals. You may be the victim of a crime in your home state, and when the police run your identification, they will find the warrant and arrest you. You could be driving down the road and be stopped for what begins as a burned out taillight warning ticket, and ends with an arrest on the Virginia warrant. You might be going to renew a license with a state agency (like to the DMV, or a hunting or fishing license) and be taken into custody on the outstanding warrant.
Once you are taken into custody, you may be held for as long as thirty days while Virginia is notified and decides whether to extradite you. If they do extradite you, you will be assessed the cost of doing so even if you are eventually found not guilty of the underlying criminal charge. If they do not extradite you, it just means you still have an outstanding warrant and you run the risk of repeating the whole process at a later date, with a different police officer, in a different town, perhaps in another state.
What To Do.
Clearing open warrant is always a nervous process. Depending on the underlying charge, how long the charge has been open, and what, if any, prior record a person has, there is the possibility that when they surrender to the Virginia authorities, they will be held without bail until trial. In all cases of old warrants, it is best to consult with and have a criminal defense attorney hired and ready to handle whatever happens from the beginning.
About James D. Garrett
J.D. Garrett is a criminal law attorney in the Virginia Beach office of Garrett Law Group, PLC. He has years of experience representing clients in the courts of Virginia Beach, Norfolk and surrounding areas.