The risks of ignoring traffic citations, legal notices and court orders

It’s In your court

Judge Steve Halsey
Wright County District Court

In ancient times those who did not pay their creditors could be imprisoned until the debt was paid.  In 2014 we do not have debtor’s prison, despite the insinuations of media reports. In Minnesota in 2014, no one goes to jail just for not paying a debt or because there is a money judgment against them. The sequence of events for possibly being arrested regarding an unpaid debt is as follows. Assume Tom Doe owes XYZ Credit Corp. for unpaid credit card debt. XYZ sues him and obtains a money judgment through court. After judgment is entered, XYZ sends Tom Doe a financial disclosure form (disclosing income, assets and liabilities) which under Minnesota law he must answer under oath and return to XYZ within 10 days (plus six days for mailing). If Tom Doe fails to do so, XYZ’s attorney can schedule a court hearing and obtain a court “order to show cause” requiring Tom Doe to appear in court and show cause why he failed to answer the disclosure. If the order to show cause is properly served on Tom Doe and he fails to appear for the hearing, then the court can issue an arrest warrant, with bail usually in the amount of the debt. The arrest warrant is issued not because of the debt, but because of Tom Doe’s failure to appear in court as ordered.

You may end up in jail, maybe briefly, if you ignore a traffic citation. Failing to either plead guilty by mail and pay the scheduled fine and surcharges or appear for court, can land you in jail. You also could find your driver’s license suspended. At each traffic and misdemeanor first appearance calendar, we have about 10 people fail to appear, some because they fail to change their residential address with the Department of Public Safety. They could be driving to work, or out on a date or driving to grandma’s house with the kids, when they are pulled over by police for a minor traffic infraction. The police officer checks the squad computer and finds there is an arrest warrant for the driver. Suddenly the driver is in the back of the squad car and being transported to jail. Most of these folks post bail and are released from jail pending conclusion of the court proceedings.

For me, perhaps the most frustrating and irritating “failures to appear” are jurors who fail to appear for jury duty. It is a misdemeanor in Minnesota to ignore a summons to appear for jury duty. It is a civic duty each of us has as a citizen, particularly at a time when fellow Americans are serving in our armed forces around the world, many at great risk of death or serious injury. Jurors seeking a postponement of jury duty must contact the court, preferably in writing. Many teachers, college students, farmers, and other seasonal workers whose job duties prevent jury duty during part of the year are given postponement of service to a more convenient time.

So if you are served with a “Summons and Complaint” which generally gives you 20 days to respond, do not ignore it. Effective July 1, 2010, there was a new civil summons which, among other notices, states the following to the Defendant (the person sued) in plain language:

YOU ARE BEING SUED. The plaintiff has started a lawsuit against you. The plaintiff’s complaint against you [is attached to this Summons] [is on file in the office of the court administrator of the above-named court]. Do no throw these papers away. They are official papers that affect your rights. You must respond to this lawsuit even though it may not yet be filed with the court and there may be no court file number on this summons …

YOU WILL LOSE YOUR CASE IF YOU DO NOT SEND A WRITTEN RESPONSE TO THE COMPLAINT TO THE PERSON WHO SIGNED THIS SUMMONS. If you do not answer within 20 days, you will lose this case. You will not get to tell your side of the story, and the court may decide against you and award the plaintiff everything asked for in the complaint.  If you do not want to contest the claims stated in the complaint, you do not need to respond. A default judgment can then be entered against you for the relief requested in the complaint.

You should at least call an attorney or do some research at your local county law library to find out the consequences of failing to respond in a timely fashion. Many plaintiffs’ lawyers will give you an extension of time to answer the summons and complaint so you can consult with an attorney.  The Minnesota State Bar Association has a referral service which will assist you in contacting an attorney and meeting with them for a small fee or no fee for the initial consultation. Their website is at Ignoring court notices only makes a legal problem much worse.

Submitted by Judge Steve Halsey, Wright County District Court, chambered in Buffalo.  


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