From Late Fees to Felony Warrants

From Late Fees to Felony WarrantsIn a story that reminds readers of an old Seinfeld episode*, a Texas woman now has to fight felony charges due to the failure to return a VHS tape. The woman doesn’t remember the tape nor the failure to return it. Adding to her nightmare is that the company she rented the tape from ceased operations more than a decade ago.

According to USA Today, the woman failed to return “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” in 2000. A felony embezzlement charge was filed against her while she lived in Oklahoma. She thinks her then-boyfriend rented the tape in her name. She only discovered the charge when she “tried to change her name on her license after getting married and moving to Texas from Oklahoma.” She became frightened because of the charge and because a felony could mean an inability to keep or find work.

Normally warrants that are so old are dismissed – but her warrant was kept open. There have been other similar cases of outstanding warrants for unreturned tapes. The good news is that ultimately the charges were dismissed, and her criminal record was expunged.

How do you find it out if there’s a warrant against you?

Normally, a police officer needs to obtain a warrant from a local judge or magistrate in order to arrest someone. Obtaining a warrant requires submitting facts (usually by affidavit or testimony) to show probable cause that a crime has been committed and that the accused committed the crime. Judges may also issue a warrant if a defendant does not appear at a scheduled court hearing. A judicial warrant is also known as a bench warrant.

Usually, people discover that there is a warrant when there is some official action such as:

  • Being stopped by the police for any traffic or other violation. One of the reasons the police want to see your driver’s license is so they can run a law enforcement check to see if there are any outstanding warrants from any state or jurisdiction in your name.
  • Seeking or asking to amend an official document. Like the woman from the news article, changing a name on a driver’s license or a Social Security card can trigger a check for warrants.
  • Having a criminal background check run on you. The checks normally examine records in all 50 states. The check will reveal any warrants along with any warrants.

Generally, all the people who are looking up your records will need is your name and date of birth.

If you want to see if there are warrants out against you, you can contact the local police to see if there’s an outstanding warrant. You can also ask your attorney to run a background check for you, and your lawyer can conduct an online search to determine if there is a warrant in a specific county. Most counties in Tennessee and across the country post records of warrants on the county website. This search isn’t perfect, though. Some warrants may not be posted online. Some information may not be correct.

There are also databases you can search to determine if there is a warrant, provided you pay a fee. You’re better off asking your attorney to help, though.

What can you do if there is a warrant?

The best course is to speak with an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as you can. Ignoring the warrant will only make things worse once you come before a judge. A judge will listen to explanations about why you didn’t know about the original warrant. Once you know about a warrant, a judge expects you to respond. A failure to respond may suggest you have something to hide.

A seasoned defense lawyer will work to determine the facts surrounding the crime and the facts surrounding the warrant. Once he/she understands the charges, your lawyer can explain your rights and your options.

Your lawyer will normally contact the prosecutor or police officer in the jurisdiction where the warrant is issued to discuss their position. You may be able to arrange to have the warrant dismissed for reasons such as:

  • The warrant expired. Some warrants may expire after 180 days if the warrant is for a misdemeanor. Felony warrants normally don’t expire – they can last for decades.
  • The warrant was meant for a different person.
  • The complainants are no longer interested in pursuing the complaint – though the prosecutor will have to sign off on the withdrawal.
  • Your attorney is able to negotiate a plea agreement to less serious charges. Sometimes, the warrant can be resolved by paying a fine for the original offense or by arguing that the case is really a civil matter not a matter for the criminal court system. With this type of resolution, you may not need to appear in court.

If the warrant isn’t dismissed, then your lawyer will seek a court date before a judge. At the court hearing, the judge will review your reasons for not complying with the warrant. If the judge decides the case should continue, the judge will set in motion the proceedings on the original charges, such as setting an arraignment date. If the judge decides that you didn’t have a valid reason for not responding to the original warrant, the judge may hold a hearing to decide if you should be held in contempt.

*In case you had forgotten, it’s the one where Mr. Bookman seeks payment and penalties from Jerry Seinfeld for an unreturned book.

At the Law Offices of Adrian H. Altshuler & Associates, we understand how frightening any criminal charge is, let alone one you learn about years or decades later. We can check your criminal record. In many cases, we are able to have the criminal charges dismissed or reduced to lesser charges. When necessary, we’re ready to assert all your defenses and hold the prosecution to its burden of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt. To discuss and warrants or arrests, please call our office at 615-977-9370 or use our contact form to schedule an appointment. We fight for criminal defendants in Franklin, Columbia, and Brentwood, and throughout Tennessee.