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When May a Judge Issue a Bench Warrant (PC 978.5)?

While it may seem clear to many that a judge can issue a bench warrant for someone if that person is in court, facing the judge and the judge orders him or her to do something, which that person then disobeys, it is not so clear if the judge can do so when a judge makes an order without defendant present.
Brief Synopsis: With court proceedings suspended and delayed by COVID-19, bench warrants for defendants failing to appear in court at rescheduled hearings exposed the problem with judges issuing bench or arrest warrants when it was unclear if defendant had actual notice of a duty to appear on a rescheduled hearing date, as the following case summary explains.  However, the Fourth Appellate District said actual notice not a requirement for issuing a bench warrant.           
The following summary from San Diego Superior Court, then appealed up to the Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District is a good summary of such powers and the limits of such judicial powers.

On October 8, 2018, Jesus Valderas was charged with three felonies: corporal injury to his spouse (Penal Code § 273.5(a)), making a criminal threat (Penal Code § 422) and false imprisonment by violence, menace, fraud or deceit (Penal Code §§ 236 / 237).  In addition, the complaint alleged that he had suffered two prior serious felony convictions within the meaning of Penal Code §§ 667(a)(1) and (b)(1), as well as § 1170.12, meaning he had two prior “Strikes” under the Three Strikes Law. 

Mr. Valderas posted bail and was present at his arraignment, as well as at the following twelve hearings in his case.  After about a year with the case pending, the prosecution amended the complaint to add a charge of rape (Penal Code § 261(a)(2)). 

The last hearing that Valderas attended was on March 9, 2020.  At that hearing, a trial readiness conference was set for March 30, 2020, and a trial date was set for April 14, 2020.

After the March 9 hearing, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic affected the San Diego Superior Court system.  On March 16, the San Diego Superior Court issued a news release saying the court would be closed until April 3 and that this covered “all criminal proceedings, including arraignments, readiness, pretrial motions, trials and sentencing.” 

On April 3, the closure order was extended to April 30.

On August 24, 2020, the judge in Valderas’ case made a “Notice of Rescheduled Hearing” order, ordering Valderas to appear at a virtual hearing for trial on September 22, 2020.  The notice included instructions on how to visit the court’s website to appear virtually.  The notice was mailed to Valderas on August 24, 2020.

On September 22, 2020, Valderas did not appear for the hearing.  Valderas’ counsel explained to the judge that she typically only had contact with him when he came to court and believed he did not have a cell phone, let alone a computer.  Defense counsel asked the judge not to issue a bench warrant and said she would work with a private investigator to find him.

The judge agreed and set a further hearing for October 20, 2020.  Valderas did not appear again.  His attorney reiterated that she typically only had contact with him in court and that she had no information that he received notice to appear.  She also indicated that he “was kind of hopping around between places,” meaning his address may have changed.  She also indicated he may have had limited financial means for access to a cell phone or the Internet.

The judge then issued a bench warrant for Valderas, explaining that he faced a possible third strike.  Defense counsel objected, noting Valderas appeared twelve times in a row earlier in the case before the pandemic affected proceedings and that contempt of court is a specific intent crime, so before issuing a warrant, the judge would need to know Valderas received notice and then decided not to appear in court, but this was not shown.  The judge disagreed, let the warrant issue and set bail at $150,000 with the warrant.

On March 29, 2021, Valderas filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the Fourth Appellate District court, seeking an order setting aside the bench warrant.  The Fourth Appellate District denied the writ.

Valderas then sought review by the California Supreme Court, which the court granted.  It then transferred the matter back to the Fourth Appellate District with directions to vacate its order denying mandamus and issuing an order directing the People to show cause why the relief should not be granted. 

The Fourth Appellate District then received the People’s response and denied the writ again.  It explained that under Penal Code § 978.5, bench warrants may be issued whenever defendants fail to appear in court as required by law.  Section 978.5 does not require that defendant receive actual notice to appear, nor is there any case law stating that defendants receive actual notice of hearing dates.

Ultimately, the burden fell on Valderas to check in with the court and / or his attorney in the eight months that followed after the court suspended proceedings due to COVID-19.  The trial court did what it could, providing notice of the hearings by mail to the address on filed and was not required to track down Valderas’ actual whereabouts.  Instead, it was up to Valderas to update his address if it changed.

We present this summary because it is not uncommon for our clients to ignore emails or lose the financial means to check e-mail or use the Internet.  Our clients may also change residences frequently due to financial conditions.  This summary shows that the court is unwilling to excuse these situations and instead, the court holds defendants to the obligation to not only update their address with the court, but also to check their email or call their attorney to remain knowledgeable about their case status.

The citation for the Fourth Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is People v. Jesus Valderas (4th App. Dist., 2021) 72 Cal. App. 5th 172, 286 Cal. Rptr. 3d 901.

For more information about bench warrants, please click on the following articles:
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