A “failure to appear” charge is relatively easy to prove and can swiftly bring a defendant to the bargaining table, says the New York Times. Some view the long-accepted but little-discussed practice of punishing late or absentee defendants as a crutch for overworked judges to maintain decorum and keep criminal cases from clogging their courtrooms. Such charges are being challenged in Connecticut, where nearly 1 in 10 of the cases not involving motor vehicles that ended in convictions over the past five years included a conviction for failure to appear. Those found guilty of what could be a procedural misstep can face up to five years in prison. Ayanna Khadijah, 34, was convicted of the felony version of failure to appear after she failed to wake up from a nap and arrived 45 minutes late to court in 2003. Her case is extraordinary because she fought back.
Connecticut's appellate court overturned her conviction last fall after concluding that the inadvertent doze was not a willful shirking of responsibility. The state is appealing to the State Supreme Court for fear the widely used tool could become harder to wield. Gerald B. Lefcourt, a past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the case “is really right out of Catch-22.” “There's no way to win when you have a system that is so inflexible and so lacking in understanding,” he said. At least 30 states treat failure to appear as a crime that stands alone. Criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University, called the Connecticut situation “mind-boggling.” “Showing up late for court is certainly inappropriate but to be convicted of it as a felony sounds so extreme,” he said. If a defendant is not there when called, he wondered of the courts, “Can't they juggle their schedules a little bit?”