Sunday, July 10, 2011

Few regulations, oversight for attorneys writing bail bonds

Here's something I didn't realize: Texas attorneys can write bail bonds for their clients instead of using a private bail bond service, according to the Dallas Morning News ("Bail bonding is a lucrative, largely unregulated practice for some Dallas County attorneys," July 9):
Former Dallas attorney Steven Yu continued to write bail bonds even after his personal and professional life began to unravel.

He was arrested for tampering with evidence in a killing. Clients complained he mishandled their money and legal affairs. He was accused of professional misconduct in more than two dozen cases.

But the criminal charges and financial troubles weren’t enough to stop Yu from writing bonds. County officials didn’t close his account until years later. He still has $260,000 in bail bonds listed in county records.

Texas is one of the few states that allows attorneys to provide bail bonds for their clients, and that’s a potentially lucrative practice in Dallas County.

County records examined by The Dallas Morning News show that attorneys have more than $37 million in bail bonds on the books as of late June. But attorneys typically have even less oversight than bail bond companies. And sometimes they walk away from money owed to the county.

Yu and more than 200 other individuals identified by the county as attorneys have written more than $10 million in bonds that may not be backed by any collateral. Because of that, the county could find it difficult, if not impossible, to recover any bonds forfeited when their clients don’t show for court. 
Reports the News, "Attorneys in Dallas County, to establish their accounts, are required to post collateral worth 10 percent of the bonds they want to write. If they exceed that limit or fail to pay bonds judges order forfeited when their clients don’t show, the county officials can suspend or close their accounts." However, "The News identified several attorneys still with active accounts who have written bonds in excess of their account limits." The article goes into quite a bit of useful detail about the "attorney exemption" regarding bail bond regulation, including this notable tidbit:
Attorneys in Texas are allowed to write bonds for clients under the so-called “attorney exemption” in the Texas Occupations Code.

It requires them to be licensed to practice law in Texas and to be the defendants’ “counsel of record” at the time bonds are written. Attorneys also aren’t supposed to engage in conduct that would subject a bail bond company to “license suspension or revocation.”

In practice, that means attorneys who write bonds don’t face nearly as much oversight as bail bond companies. But they potentially pose a greater financial risk to the county: Most bail bond companies are backed by insurance companies who can be held responsible for paying the full amount of a bond forfeiture.

Dallas County has sought to impose additional requirements for attorneys writing bonds, such as posting collateral covering 10 percent of the amount of bonds they wish to write. But, if challenged, even that may be unenforceable, said one bail bond expert.

“Basically, the county cannot require attorneys who are writing on their bar license to put up any money,” said Randy Adler, a Dallas lawyer who represents bail bond companies. “All they’re required to do under the governing statute … is to present [their] financial statement. And once they do that, then the sheriff is obligated to accept their bond.”

In many Texas counties, Adler said, attorneys aren’t required to place any money in trust with the county.
Grits was unaware of that practice, making me wonder what proportion of bonds are issued by attorneys instead of professional bail bondsmen, and what are the comparable absconder rates? The most prolific bond writer among Dallas attorneys had 654 outstanding bonds, as of the News' recent records request, with #2 coming in at 368. So while this may be a relatively common practice, according to the numbers presented in this story, attorney-issued bonds don't appear to make up a sizable percentage of bonds written overall. Still, it's not an insignificant number and apparently a much more common practice than I'd realized.


Anonymous said...

Bail bonds are simply a way to make the bail bondsman, who frequently contribute to the campaigns of judges and sheriff's, and the counties money. The federal system stopped accepting money years ago. Most federal defendants are released simply with bond restrictions but without having to put up any money. If it works at the federal level it would work at the state level...and it would probably solve the overcrowding problems most local jails have.

If money is to be accepted, bonds should be set at an amount that would allow the defendant to post it without using a bondsman. THink about it...say a bond is set at $50,000. Few people have that kind of money so they go to a bondsman and pay them $5,000. Why not just set the bond at $5,000 so a bondsman is not needed and the defendant can then get his money back when he shows up for trial. The purpose of bail is supposed to be to make sure the defendant shows up for trial. If that were really the purpose wouldnt it be more of an incentive if the defendant could get his money back by showing up, whereas, with a bondsman the money is gone whether he shows up or not. But, like many things the purpose stated in the law is not the real purpose. The real purpose is to make the bondsman and the county money. Think about it..... with a $50,000 bond instead of $5,000, not only does the bondsman make money but if the defendant doesn't show up the county gets $50,000 instead of $5,000. Its all about money...its not about making sure they show up for court or public safety.

organic_veggie said...

I'am worried about the conflict of interest. I'am your lawyer, I wrote your bond, now pay me x for legal services or I'll revoke your bond and you end up in jail with no legal representation.

Anonymous said...

First, if your sheriff takes campaign contributions from bondsmen, it's time for a new sheriff.

Second, attorney bonds have been given a free ride across the dtate for years. There is a growing effort to hold them accountable for the bonds they put up. I know locally for decades they could just bond someone out and there were never any forfeitures of those bonds.

Anonymous said...

It is the same here in Austin. This is a story about the atty not the bondsmen. This is defiantly a lucrative biz for attnys they have not accountability if the client fails to appear. You have attnys who went who passed the bar exam to become bondsmen...go figure. There is a conflict of interest!

Burke Moore said...

The conflict of interest that they taught me in law school (they said to never do this, legal or not) is that it limits the candor of the advice the attorney gives to the client. The lawyer is less likely to tell the client that s/he is dead to rights if the client running away means the attorney will owe the court a lot of money.