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The Long Arm of the Law

Posted by brent on Monday, January 9th, 2012

Old bad jokes were not the only things that could be called “groaners”. This article tells about some of the uncommon, yet still all-too-frequent situations we attorneys hear which make us want to rather unprofessionally groan “Oh, no, don’t tell me....”

I chose the title “The Long Arm of the Law” because that is a familiar phrase from our childhood, intended to teach us that criminal law enforcement will chase an evildoer across the city, across the state, across the nation, and sometimes into other countries. The point here, however, is to add the element of TIME to the reader’s consciousness. The law is like an elephant. It never forgets.

Although it is true that a certain level of irrational optimism fuels some of these "groaner" stories, there are also situations where people just honestly do not realize that a legal problem still exists years after it started.

The very, very few times the law ever forgets, it takes "help". Fire, flood, perhaps a power outage or a computer failure these days can destroy court or law enforcement records. But this is very rare. Court records of minor infractions such as traffic citations can be routinely destroyed ten or twenty years after the case closes. These are notable exceptions to the general rule.

It should not come as a surprise that legal events create public records that WILL follow you for years. Being on the wrong end of one of these decisions does not mean that someone from local law enforcement will start tracking you down right away. But there is a record, waiting there for anyone in the legal system to look it up. Arrest warrants, for example, stay in law enforcement databases for years. Court records from a lawsuit are most likely to be kept for as long as you live. And even though a civil court judgment is described as enforceable for only six or eight years, that applies only to an automatic expiration. A determined opponent can “renew” that judgment any time in the last year before it expires, re-setting the clock.

You can become the subject of an arrest warrant even in a simple civil lawsuit that does not involve any criminal charges. It happens for just failing to show up in court ("failure to appear", it's called),  if the appearance at the courthouse was ordered by a subpoena. This can result in a "bench warrant" FOR ARREST being issued. I have heard people complain about being totally surprised by a bench warrant, only to later admit some time later that they got something by hand delivery or in the mail but never read it.

So, the next time you hear somebody say something about “oh yeah, I had a problem but they didn't do anything about it” or “somebody dropped off some court papers, but I just threw them away”, please warn them that the long arm of the law also includes being like an elephant which never forgets. A consultation with an attorney is almost always a very, very good idea if someone “hasn’t heard a thing”, even for years. It might be far, far less expensive than trying to make bail. And it can spare one of us attorneys from groaning in despair over a "groaner", a preventable mess.

The law never forgets. That is part of why its arm is so long.


Category: General Principles of Law


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