Trial in absentia. This phrase refers to a court conducting a criminal trial without the presence of the defendant. You might be wondering if it’s possible for this to occur, and my answer is yes, with a caveat.

Defendants are afforded a multitude of constitutional rights they may elect to exercise regarding the disposition of criminal charges brought against them by the state. They may also exercise their prerogative to be present at all court proceedings including pre-trial conferences, the trial itself, and post-conviction proceedings including restitution hearings.  Alternatively, should they wish to do so, defendants may opt to waive their presence at some court proceedings without jeopardizing the disposition of their case. A scenario that becomes potentially problematic for them, however, is their absence at trial.

Some defendants, either intentionally or otherwise, don’t show up for scheduled trials, and their failure to do so could result in a trial in absentia. Provided that the state is ready to proceed with the presentation of its case, the trial, at the discretion of the judge, may move forward.   The Arizona Rules of Criminal Procedure establish that a court may do so if it is of the opinion that the defendant voluntarily absented himself as established by the fact that the defendant had personal knowledge of the time of the proceeding and that he was properly advised it would go forward. What this means is that, by failing to show up, a defendant could be judged guilty of a criminal offense with a warrant for arrest issued in order to compel his presence at sentencing.

As I mentioned, the decision to conduct a trial in absentia rests with the judge presiding over the matter. Provided the proper notifications have been made, in my opinion, it can be an appropriate method to dispose of a case and is something that I have done when the circumstances have warranted.  To do otherwise requires the issuance of a summons or warrant for arrest in order to secure the defendant’s presence in court to address his or her absence, rescheduling the trial with the knowledge that events could arise preventing either side from being in a position to proceed, and the trial could be reset yet again.

In case you are interested, while the rules permit a trial in absentia, they require the presence of a defendant at sentencing.  By delaying the imposition of sentence, the court gives a defendant the opportunity to argue for mitigation of punishment. By that, I mean a possible reduction in severity from incarceration in the county jail to that of probation and/or monetary penalty.