Over the last few weeks, I have run into a large number of people who not only have criminal cases pending, but also have warrants out for their arrest. One of the most common reasons people find themselves in this situation is that they missed their court date. When this happens, it is considered to be an FTA (Failure To Appear). If you FTA, the judge will issue a bench warrant.
One of the most common reasons people miss their court date is because they do not keep the court informed of their current address. If you know you have a criminal matter pending, make sure the court knows your current address and that you check your mail regularly.
Many of the people I have talked to who have outstanding warrants are scared and don't know what to do. The only thing you should be worried about is getting picked up by the police. If the police stop you, whether you're in a vehicle or just walking down the street, for whatever reason, and they discover that there is a warrant out for your arrest, you will be taken into custody. No doubt about it- you are going to jail.
The best thing to do when there is a warrant out for your arrest is to go to the warrants calendar at the court in which your case has been filed and have the warrant "quashed". The word, "quash" is a middle English word that means to extinguish or destroy. In the legal context of a warrants hearing, to quash a warrant means to terminate or revoke the warrant. When you do this, the warrant will be gone and you will be given a new court date. Except for unusual circumstances, the judge usually quashes the warrant and gives you a new court date. You will be given a slip with that court date on it. Do not lose this slip; the court will not send you any further notice of your court date. Make sure you inform your attorney of the new court date.
Speaking of attorneys, defendants are usually not represented by a lawyer when they go in to quash a warrant. They usually just call up the court and find out the day, time, and courtroom number where the warrants calendar is held and just show up on their own. In Seattle, you must go to the clerk's office on the 3rd floor of the King County Courthouse on 3rd Avenue and ask to be added to the warrants calendar. Warrants are quashed every day at 2:00 p.m. in courtroom 1 at the King County jail. Yes, that's right- the jail. There is a courtroom in the jail specifically for quashing warrants and probable cause hearings. The courtroom for quashing a warrant in Seattle is in the jail, not the courthouse. But you have to go to the courthouse first to get added to the warrants calendar.
In some cases, the judge may require you to post bail in order for the warrant to be quashed. There is always a bail bondsman present at the warrants calendar at the King County jail. If you can't post bail, then the judge will just send you on your way with an outstanding warrant; people are rarely taken into custody at these hearings. But it does happen sometimes. If you have a history of FTAs or your case is particularly egregious, the judge may require bail or even have you taken into custody. On the other hand, if you accidentally missed just one court date and do not have a significant criminal history or FTA history, the judge probably won't require you to post bail or have you taken into custody. These decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
The main fear that people have when they "turn themselves in" is that they'll be taken into custody. In many cases, you should not worry about that. The judge will most likely just quash the warrant and give you a new court date and you won't have to be constantly looking over your shoulder to see if a cop is behind you. But if you have a warrant out for your arrest and you chose to ignore it, you will certainly be taken into custody if you're stopped by the police and they run a warrants check. Do not make this mistake.