Bail forfeiture is a serious offense. In essence, it means that the defendant has failed to appear for trial, as ordered by the courts. If this occurs, a judge issues a bench warrant and determines a forfeiture date, typically at the forfeiture hearing. At this time, the defendant officially becomes a fugitive. It becomes the responsibility of the bail bondsman, or whoever agreed to the terms of the bail bond, to find the defendant and deliver him/her to the court. If the defendant appears by the forfeiture date, there is no bond forfeiture. However, if the defendant does not appear, the entire bail amount is payable to the court. In the case of a bail bondsman, when forfeiture occurs, the bondsman typically uses a bounty hunter to find the fugitive. It then becomes the fugitive’s responsibility to repay the bail money.
There are many valid reasons why court dates are missed, like a death in the family, being out of town, or a missing letter from the court containing the appearance date and instructions. If a defendant can provide a legitimate reason for missing the date, the court will likely cancel the forfeiture and proceed with a new court date. However, if the court eventually finds the fugitive, and it appears as though he/she is truly a flight risk, the defendant will have to stay in custody until his/her trial. This could be in addition to the bail forfeiture if beyond the forfeiture date.
In many cases, the threat of bail forfeiture is a result of “cold feet” by the defendant. If this does occur, the prudent course of action is to turn the individual in immediately. However, he/she should be in contact with an attorney who could possibly mitigate the damages of the bench warrant. In addition to bail forfeiture, there are normally charges and/or fines attached to a failure to appear. The severity of the additional charges depends on the original charges, whether they are misdemeanors or felonies, or on whether the fugitive returns on his/her own, or is arrested.
Bail forfeiture can be costly and impact the outcome of a trial. Not only can anyone associated with the bail process be out of whatever money or property was used to secure one’s release, but the defendant can face additional charges, resulting in extra jail time.