If you are arrested and put behind bars, bail is your "get out of jail" but not exactly "free" card. If you're out on a bail bond, you've agreed to reappear in court when needed in exchange for release from jail. If you don't appear, your bond is forfeited. Under certain circumstances, a judge can vacate the bond forfeiture. Vacate is a legal term for voiding a decision.
The Bail Process
There are two forms of bail. With a surety bond, a bonding company "ensures" you will appear in court. You must give the bonding company a percentage of the set amount of your bail in return. If your bail was set at $25,000, a 10 percent option means you must pay $2,500 for a surety bond. Should you fail to appear in court, the bonding company is liable for the entire amount of the bail. If you show up in court as expected, once the case has ended, the court releases the bond, and the court clerk sends a discharge certificate to the bonding company.
A cash bond means the total amount of the bail must be posted with the jail before you are released.
Failure to Appear
If you don't show up for your court date -- whether it's for arraignment, the trial or judgment -- your bond, whether surety or cash, is forfeited. You've lost the deposit represented by the bail bond. The court also issues a bench warrant for your arrest. However, it's possible you had a somewhat legitimate reason for your non-appearance, such as going to the wrong court or showing up on the wrong date. While the law varies by state, if you correct your error for non-appearance within a reasonable time, you may petition the court to have the forfeiture vacated. In California, it's up to 180 days, or about six months. Then it's up to a judge to decide whether to vacate the bond.
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Vacating the Bond
If the judge agrees to vacate the forfeiture of the bond, that means you are no longer forfeiting any collateral put up for the bond. For example, in Florida, if you forfeit a cash bond, you must contact the judge and request that he vacate the bond estreature. That's the court order declaring the bond forfeited to the county.