What's in a name?
The term 'bench' is the traditional term for the judge's seat and therefore, the warrant issued by the judge is called the bench warrant.
If you have minor criminal charges against you or even a traffic ticket for that matter, you may receive a summon or notice to appear in the court. (In contrast, for serious charges, you will have a law enforcement officer at your doorstep with an arrest warrant.) If you do not appear in the court when summoned, you will be charged with the crime of failure to appear or contempt of court and a bench warrant will be issued against you. Simply put, when the judge sets a hearing date and you don't show up, the judge issues a bench warrant directing the law enforcement authorities to bring you to him.
What is a Bench Warrant?
By definition, a bench warrant is a type of warrant which directs the law enforcement authorities to take a person into custody and produce him before the court. Other than the person's failure to appear before the court on the given date―whatever the reason be, it can be issued if the person violates probation or fails to comply with a court order directing him to pay fine or do community service.
How Does it Differ From An Arrest Warrant?
If an arrest warrant is issued against you, the law enforcement authorities will actively pursue you and even land up at your doorstep to arrest you. In contrast, if a bench warrant is issued, they won't pursue you actively. Instead, they will add your name to their database and the moment you come in contact with them the next time, they will take you in custody. So the next time you are pulled over for over speeding, the officer will run your name in the database, and the moment he realizes you have a bench warrant, he will take you into custody.
More importantly, an arrest warrant is issued when the law enforcement officer convinces the judge that he needs to take you in custody. As opposed to this, a bench warrant is issued when you are summoned by the judge and you don't appear in the court.
What Should You Do If You have a Bench Warrant?
Both, the court and law enforcement authorities go by the rule that the guilty flee, while innocents try to prove their innocence. That brings us to the first thing you should do if you come to know that there is a bench warrant against you, turn yourself in. If a law enforcement officer finds you and produces you in front of the judge, the latter will have a strong reason to believe that you were evading the court. In contrast, if you surrender, it will show that you didn't intend to miss the date or if at all, you had a strong reason to do so.
You can call the courthouse/court and speak to the clerk to find out what the warrant is for. Depending on the reason and your area of jurisdiction, you might not even have to appear before the judge. At times, you can simply pay the outstanding fees/fines to the clerk and get rid of the outstanding warrant. However, if the case is serious, then you will have to surrender at the court or local police department. You will have the option of choosing between paying the bond assigned by the judge and staying in custody until you get a new date scheduled for your case.
Then again, you will have to see the judge if you want to contest the charges against you. If that's the case, then you will have to keep all your papers/evidence ready. If the judge feels that you have sufficient evidence, then he will drop your charges. On the other hand, if he is not convinced, then he will ask you to pay a specific amount as fine. Whatever happens, never raise your voice when you are talking to the judge, or else you will be held in contempt of court.
At times, however, you may not even realize that you have a bench warrant against you. This is usually the case when the court sends a summons or notice on the address that they have in their database, unaware of the fact that you don't stay there anymore. In this case, you will only realize that there is a bench warrant against you when you are pulled up for some offense and the officer runs a search for your name in their database.
In such circumstances, the first thing to keep in mind is that there is no point arguing with the officer. He is just following the court's order. By not cooperating, you will only force him to cuff you, if at all. You will get a chance to put forth your side of the story in front of the judge. If you intend to contest the charges, you can do it then.
If the judge is convinced, you will be able to pay the stipulated fine and get the bench warrant quashed. If not, you will be penalized. If the warrant was issued because you didn't turn up while you were out on bail, your bail will be revoked and you will forfeit the bail amount you paid. If the judge thinks you are a flight risk, then he might detain you or put you on electronic monitoring.
In bench warrant-related proceedings, it is always an advantage to have an experienced counsel on your side. He will be in a better position to convince the judge that there was a genuine reason as to why you didn't appear for the scheduled court hearing.