HANCOCK COUNTY — Rarely does a day go by when someone in Hancock County isn’t arrested for failure to appear for a case in a local courtroom.
In an effort to show how serious the Hancock County Prosecutor’s office is about making sure each case is handled promptly and efficiently, Prosecutor Brent Eaton plans to start charging defendants who don’t show for their courtroom date.
Defendants who don’t appear are now subject to either a Class A Misdemeanor or Level 6 felony crime in addition to the charges they’re already facing. Eaton and his staff plan to start filing new charges against those identified as “failure to appear” as soon as this week, he said.
The announcement was made earlier this week with Eaton saying it’s time to hold defendants accountable and keep cases moving through the court system as efficiently as possible.
“When someone fails to appear and is subsequently picked up on a warrant, the criminal case usually starts back up again more or less where it had been before,” Eaton said. “Usually there is no additional penalty for the defendant for having failed to appear after they get arrested again.”
Typically, when a defendant is ordered to appear in court and fails to do so, a warrant is issued for an arrest. While the warrant gives law enforcement the power to take a person into custody, it has not carried any additional criminal penalty — until now.
“This is going to change in Hancock County,” Eaton said.
Eaton noted that he’s simply going to start following the law and start holding people accountable who don’t come to court to address their case.
Indiana law states a person who has been released from lawful detention under the condition the person will appear at a specified time and place in connection with a charge of a crime, but intentionally fails to appear at that time and place, can be charged with a crime.
If a pending case against a person is a misdemeanor and they don’t show up to address the case, the person will be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. If the pending case against a person who doesn’t show is a felony, they will be charged with an additional Level 6 Felony.
Indiana code provides the authority to charge defendants with a Class C Misdemeanor for failing to appear after being issued a summons.
“We intend to begin using these statutes to charge defendants criminally, in addition to asking for an arrest warrant for having failed to appear on their pending case.” Eaton said.
In addition, on a C misdemeanor, the maximum fine is $500. On a Level 6 felony, the maximum fine is $10,000.
“We always can consider a fine as part of a case resolution, but we have discussed most likely asking for jail time or leaving a sentence to the courtroom judge,” Eaton said.
There is nothing more pending than for a defendant to appear in court when ordered to do so, Eaton noted, saying his office will be pursuing charges more aggressively for people who fail to appear in Hancock County.
“I am hopeful this message gets across to people who may have cases pending now or in the future, and they will consistently appear in court as ordered,” Eaton said, “I am hopeful that a greater awareness of the potential consequences for failing to appear will prevent people from doing so in the future.”
It would be great, Eaton noted, if the announcement of possible new charges for not showing up would result in everyone being in court as ordered so the prosecutor’s officer would never have to file a case of this type in moving forward.
“I really hope that can be the outcome, but we are ready to proceed if necessary,” Eaton said.
Eaton’s office has noticed appearance numbers for cases have not rebounded to pre-pandemic numbers when people mostly showed up to take care of their business.
“The Covid-19 pandemic changed the way the court system operated in Indiana,” Eaton said. “In-person court appearances frequently changed to Zoom sessions or participation by telephone.”
While those procedures helped Hancock County courts stay open, moving cases forward as best they could during the pandemic, it appears people are more than ever in the habit of not showing up.
Eaton said that, thanks to technology and dedication of the courts and staff, deputy prosecutors were able to keep the justice system operating during the pandemic, but now is the time to get things back to normal.
“During that time, defendants who had been in the habit of appearing in court for hearings became accustomed to being able to do so remotely, or not at all,” Eaton said. “It has also been common for defendants to cite health conditions as a reason for missing court without providing documentation.”
As a result, more defendants are now missing court than had been the case prior to the pandemic.
“This is an area that hasn’t returned to a pre-pandemic normal,” Eaton said. “When people don’t show up for their court appearance, it delays case resolution and accountability.”
Most importantly Eaton said, “justice delayed is frequently justice denied.”