If someone has been released from jail for a criminal charge, either by posting a bond or by being released on their personal recognizance, they’ll have to go to court. If they miss a single court date – out of several that might be scheduled before their case is actually heard and resolved – the judge may issue a bench warrant for their arrest. Once arrested on the bench warrant, they’ll stay in jail until the case is disposed of, either by a trial, or a guilty plea, or a dismissal. The only way around a bench warrant is an order from a judge withdrawing the warrant.
How do I find out if someone has a bench warrant?
Unlike arrest warrants that are issued after an initial police investigation has concluded, bench warrants are usually on file with the Clerk of Court and are therefore a public record. In South Carolina, there is a statewide system called the Public Index where anyone can look up information on pending cases. Just go to the main case records search page maintained by the state and click on the county where the arrest was made. Cases that are being prosecuted in the Court of General Sessions should be relatively easy to check for bench warrants—once you find the case you’re looking for, click the “Actions” tab. If you see the phrase “bench warrant” (which might just be ominously abbreviated to BW), that’s a good clue that a bench warrant is active. (If you see a filing entry for just “Warrants,” then that might just refer to the original arrest warrants that have been filed to start the case, not an active bench warrant.)
Cases that are being prosecuted in magistrate courts or municipal courts might be harder to find. Not every magistrate and municipal court puts its records in the Public Index. And if you miss court in magistrate or municipal court, the judge might just hold a trial in your absence and sentence you instead of bothering with a bench warrant. Most municipal courts in Spartanburg do not put any information in the Public Index, but a couple of them do. Magistrate courts in Spartanburg are on the Public Index, and some update their records better than others.
Otherwise, the only way to really know if someone has a bench warrant is for them to walk into a police station and ask.
If someone has a bench warrant, can it be lifted without them going to jail?
Maybe. Every court system handles bench warrants differently, and of course, some excuses for missing court are better than others. In Spartanburg, for a bench warrant that has been issued in a General Sessions case, a motion has to be filed with the Clerk for the warrant to be lifted. The motion will then be docketed (given a court date) at the next available opportunity, and those opportunities tend to come about twice a month, usually on Fridays. If the defendant hires an attorney to handle this process – which they absolutely should – the attorney can reach out to the prosecutor to see if they will agree to have the bench warrant lifted. Whether they agree depends on a lot of factors.
It helps if there is a good excuse – documentation that the defendant was hospitalized due to an emergency on the day they missed court or documentation that you they in jail somewhere else when they missed court are examples of what will usually be considered valid excuses, since they show that the defendant was physically unable to come to court.
It also helps if an attorney has been hired relatively quickly after the missed court date. The longer you wait, the worse it looks.
Also, the more serious the charge is, the less likely the prosecutor will agree to lift the bench warrant, and it will just be up to the judge. Even if the prosecutor agrees to lifting the bench warrant, an order still has to be signed by a judge before the warrant goes away, and with South Carolina’s circuit court system, that may mean having to wait until a judge is in town for the week who will agree to sign off on the order lifting the bench warrant.
If someone has been arrested on a bench warrant, how quickly can they get out?
It depends. The first step will be the attorney filing a motion to lift the bench warrant. How quickly a court date gets set will just depend on the court schedule for the county where the case is pending. In Spartanburg, these motions are usually heard on Fridays during weeks where terms of court for General Sessions are being held. Anyone can check the schedule for any county in South Carolina through the state’s website.
The attorney should usually make some effort to reach out to the prosecutor before court to see if they’ll agree to have the bench warrant lifted. If they do, then an order signed by both the defense attorney and the prosecutor can be presented to the judge before the court date. The judge still has to agree to it, and the judge still has to be willing to look at it and sign it before the court date (some judges will have more flexible schedules than others). Once the order lifting the bench warrant is signed, filed with the clerk, and sent over to the jail, the defendant can be released according to the provisions of their original bond.
A lot of prosecutors will not agree to lifting bench warrants – even on cases that don’t seem very serious. If that’s the case, you just have to wait for the motion’s court date to see what happens. This will be the defense attorney’s opportunity to convince the judge to let their client back out and have another chance to come to court through the front door whenever their case might be called in the future. If the judge won’t agree, then the case will have to be resolved before the defendant can be released.
Can I hire an attorney just to lift the bench warrant (without having to hire them for the rest of the case)?
In Spartanburg, no. (Everywhere else in South Carolina, generally not.) Once an attorney files paperwork indicating that they are the attorney of record in the case, then they are considered to be on the case until it is over. South Carolina law makes an exception for preliminary hearings (also known as commitment hearings or probable cause hearings), where the attorney can limit their representation to just the one hearing, but other than that, they will be in for the whole case unless the judge signs an order letting them off the hook (which won’t happen unless there’s a good reason).
If you think you or someone you care about has a bench warrant, you should absolutely contact a criminal defense attorney right away.
I offer free consultations and am happy to talk to you about your situation and your case. Call (864) 406-6755 or click “Contact” above to get started.