Failure to Appear Warrant in Tampa, Hillsborough County, FL

In many misdemeanor cases, the arresting officer wants to avoid making a formal arrest. The officer is allowed under most circumstances to issue the person a piece of paper called the "Notice to Appear."

The NTA operates much like a summons to appear in court. In most jurisdictions, the NTA will actually tell the person when and where they are to appear to answer the charges (also called the "arraignment date").

The notice to appear is common for charges like possession of marijuana or drug paraphernalia, driving while license suspended with knowledge, or petit theft (also known as "shoplifting").


Unfortunately, in Hillsborough County, the citations do NOT actually provide notice of the arraignment date or time. This article explores the hoops someone must jump through after being issued a notice to appear.

One false move and you will be assessed additional fees, a service fee, or a reinstatement fee, the delinquency fee, the fee for a D-6 clearance, plus the expense of posting bond on the FTA warrant (not to mention the money you will pay in an attempt to get your mug shot off the internet). 

In Hillsborough County the Notice to Appear Doesn't Provide Notice of Anything

It seems to me that if the Notice to Appear simply did what it promised and provided notice of when and where to appear that people would have a much easier time complying. In fact, the other day I received a call from a lady who told me about the journey she went on trying to comply.

She had been issued a citation for DWLS with Knowledge, a second degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. She missed the court date set by the clerk's office and eventually turned herself into the jail and posted a $5,000 cash bond. 

She asked me, "What was I suppose to do?" I explained that if she had hired a private attorney then the attorney could file a "Motion to Withdraw the Capius." In misdemeanor traffic cases in Tampa, I've never seen a judge not grant the motion for an attorney with good grounds for the request. Then the court sets a new court date and the capius disappears.

Her next question was - "I went to the clerk's office on multiple days and then I went to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office on multiple days. I had to keep going back to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office waiting for the capius to show up. Why didn't anyone just tell me that I could hire a private attorney could file a "Motion to Withdraw the Capius?"

Her main reason for being concerned was that after being released from jail she learned from a friend that her mug shot would be all over the internet. The problem with surrendering at the jail is that now a mug shot and arrest record is created.

Pretty soon that mug shot will be showcased on a variety of third party "Mug Shot" websites. These private companies will create a page with all of your information on it. If you want your mug shot taken down then these companies will charge you thousands of dollars. Even if you pay the money they will put your profile up on their sister sites in an attempt to extort even more money from you. 

How could all of this be avoided? What if the notice to appear just told the person the time and place they should appear? Let's explore what happens in the typically case:
___________________

What Does the Notice to Appear Say?

Instead of providing notice of the time and place to appear to answer the allegation, the notice to appear will say "Schedule a Court Date within 10 Days of citation date. Hillsborough County Court." The back of the Notice to Appear will says: 

____________________

IMPORTANT INSTRUCTIONS TO INDIVIDUAL CHARGED WITH A TRAFFIC VIOLATION REQUIRES A MANDATORY COURT APPEARANCE

YOU MUST CONTACT CLERK OF TO SCHEDULE A MANDATORY COURT APPEARANCE

COURT LOCATION: 

Hillsborough Court (10 days)
419 Pierce Street, Room 107
Tampa, Fl 33602

Court Phone: 
813-276-8200
__________________

What Happens When You Try to Schedule the Court Appearance?

If you call that number then you will probably get a busy signal. If you are lucky enough to have your call answered, it is an automated system that directs you to press "7" for "information on scheduling a court date."

You will not actually talk with anyone at the clerk's office who will schedule a court appearance. Instead, you will hear a message that tells you that you must appear at the clerks office "in person" to schedule a court appearance. 

The automated system also tells you that you can mail in a "request for a court date" in writing and must include "as much information as possible," including: a copy of the citation, your full name, driver's license number, date of offense, citation ticket number and current mailing address.

Hopefully, the clerk will grant your "request" and send you notice of the court date.  

If you go to the clerk's office in person or request a court date in writing within the first ten days, the clerk may tell you that no such citation has been received by their office from the arresting officer. The clerk will tell you that you are required to call or visit EACH DAY to see whether the citation has been received. 

If you don't like the automated system then you can press "8" to talk to the clerk. It has been a long time since I last called the clerk's office, so I gave it a try. I sat on hold for more than 20 minutes after being told there were 27 people ahead of me. Eventually, I was connected with a clerk. I had a simple question:
"If someone receives a citation for a criminal traffic infraction (like Driving While License Suspended (1st Conviction)) can the person call to set the court date?"
Although the notice doesn't tell you the answer to that question the answer is "No." The person must appear in person or make a "request" in writing. The clerk's website explains it this way:

How do I set a court date [for a criminal traffic infraction in Hillsborough County, FL]?
If you are charged with a criminal traffic violation (DUI, driving with a suspended license, driving without a valid drivers license, etc.), you must appear in person at one of the Clerk's office locations that process Traffic violations or mail a request in writing within 10 days of the offense date to request a court date....
During that conversation, the clerk told me that the Chief Judge just signed an administrative order that now requires the Clerk's office to set a court date if it is not requested within the 10 day period.

In many of those case, it is IMPOSSIBLE to set the court date within 10 days because the clerk hadn't even entered the paperwork into their system within 10 days.

I said, "Under the new system how would the person know what day and time to appear?" The clerk said the person should just call back "every day" until the clerk is able to tell them the court date. 

What Does the New Administrative Order Say About a Failure to Appear?

I had to look up the administrative order, S-2013-044, which became effective July 22, 2013. It provides:
10. Criminal Traffic Offenses 
A. Failure to Appear 
Failure of any defendant to appear at the Traffic Violations Bureau within 10 days from the date of issuance of the citation and make disposition of any citation for any criminal traffic violations within Chapter 316, 320, and 322, Florida Statutes, will result in the clerk setting a court date and notifying the defendant. if the defendant fails to appear at the hearing set by the clerk, the court may issue a capias for the arrest of the defendant, together with a Form D-6 (license suspension.) The capias will be issued with an appropriate bond amount to ensure the defendant's appearance before the court. A capius may be issued when the defendant is a minor, but the minor will be released on the minor's own recognizance. 
What Does the Clerk Do? 

Not surprisingly, many people are unable to set a court date under the old system or find out the court date under the new system. If they fail to set a court date or miss the court date set by the clerk (often because they didn't receive notice of that date or time) then the clerk will send out a form letter.

For instance, if you received a notice to appear with a traffic offense such as "DWLS w/Knowledge" then your form letter might say: 
_____________________
Clerk of the Circuit Court 
Hillsborough County - Traffic

Charge: __________

Date Failed to Comply: _______________

Subject: DELINQUENCY NOTICE OF FAILURE TO COMPLY WITH A CRIMINAL TRAFFIC CITATION AS REQUIRED BY F.S. 322.245

You have failed to comply with all directives of the court within the time allotted as indicated by the date above. You must contact the Clerk of Court at the address listed above and comply as originally required. 

A capius may have been issued or may be issued for your arrest for failure to comply. Failure to comply with this notice by 11/06/2013 will result in the suspension of your driver's license. Additional fees may be assessed. 

For reinstatement of your driver's license, you may be required to pay a service fee after all court directives have been satisfied.    

Pat Frank, 
Clerk of the Circuit Court
Hillsborough County, FL
__________________________________

If the capius is issued then the clerk will tell you to turn yourself in at the jail. If you go to the jail the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office might tell you that the capius is not in their system yet. HCSO has even created a flyer for people in this position. It reads:
____________________________________

Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office - Tampa FL
Sheriff David Gee

Warrants

1. Check HCSO website.
2. www.hcso.tampa.fl.us
3. Click on Inquiries Online
4. Click on Warrant inquiry
5. Type your name in the box and enter.
6. If your name appears with an active warrant contact us at 813-247-8460.

It takes approximately 10-14 days from the day you miss your court date for a warrant to appear in our system. If the Warrant does not appear at the end of the 14 days contact the Clerk of the Circuit Court @ 813-276-8200. Have your citation number available.
___________________________________

Nothing this woman received told her that a private attorney could file a "Motion to Withdraw the Capius." I assume that if a private attorney can fix it in a matter of days by filing a motion, that the woman might have just represented herself and filed a pro se "Motion to Withdraw the Capius."

The Public Defender's Office hasn't even been appointed in these cases, so I'm not sure what procedures there might be for indigent people who need assistants with this type of motion.

I'm pretty sure that if the clerk just put the court date on the actual Notice to Appear the way they do in other counties, then less people will be calling or visiting the clerk's office.

Does the clerk have some reason why it wants all of these people calling every single day trying to figure out their next court date? Most importantly, far less people would be calling or visiting the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to surrender on the Failure to Appear warrant.

Solution - The Clerk could publish the arraignment schedule for each judge and publish those dates in advance. That way any officer on the street could look at the schedule and write the time and date to appear on the citation or notice to appear.

The officers already determine whether the arraignment will occur at the courthouse in Tampa or Plant City, FL. For cases in Tampa, the officers already know the division and judge who will be assigned the case because it goes by the first letter of the Defendant's last name. The officers could just look at the schedule and write the time and date on the citation. Problem solved.

So why is it that the notice to appear doesn't just tell you the date and time to appear?

Leslie Sammis is a criminal defense attorney at the Sammis Law Firm who represents clients on felony and misdemeanor charges in Tampa or Plant City, Hillsborough County, FL.

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