Monday, December 05, 2011

False reports of rearrest relieved Dallas bond company of liability for bail jumpers

Kevin Krause and Ed Timms at the Dallas News have an excellent investigative report ("Dallas bail bondsman falsely reports defendants rearrested to avoid losses," Dec. 5, behind paywall) revealing an extreme lack of oversight that lets Dallas bail bondsmen submit unverified and sometimes false reports claiming their clients were rearrested in order to avoid paying bond forfeitures. The story opens:
 Joellen Hamil left North Texas with her children shortly after bonding out of jail on a theft charge and settled in her Pennsylvania hometown.

Not long after his sixth or seventh drunken-driving arrest, Luis Alonso Lopez skipped bail only to be tracked down in Florida years later.

Enrique Trejo disappeared after a bail bond freed him from jail; he has yet to be brought back to face trial.

In these cases and others, the bondsman who helped spring these people from jail claimed in court papers that they had been rearrested, without including any documentation to back up those claims. That saved the bondsman thousands of dollars that in some cases would have been forfeited to Dallas County as required by law when someone jumps bail.

The county, unlike other large metro areas, lacks standard rules for such procedures, and prosecutors and judges in most cases accept arrest claims as fact in an “honor system” with little or no scrutiny. It’s the latest example of how the county’s handling of bail bond cases has led to declining forfeiture revenue and problems collecting on judgments, as detailed in previous reports by The Dallas Morning News.
Typically in Dallas, bond companies aren't required to provide detailed proof of rearrest before courts relieve them of liability for the forfeited bond. In theory requests for release from forfeiture obligations could be opposed by the local DA's office. "But in Dallas County, prosecutors apparently do not contest information that bondsmen provide in bills of review. Doing so would require a hearing. ... [L]awyers say they cannot recall the last time a hearing was held in Dallas County over a contested bill of review."  DA Craig Watkins, himself a former bail bondsman, called it the "honor system":
It’s unclear how often lawyers don’t provide proof of claims that get bondsmen off the hook financially in Dallas County, but to the extent that it happens, bondsmen lose any incentive to track down fugitives, who may continue to jeopardize public safety because the law lost track of them.
District Attorney Craig Watkins, a former bail bondsman, declined to comment on specific cases but said his office and a new county task force are working on new bond forfeiture policies that will require better documentation.

He said the process in Dallas County has been too informal for years. He likened the Frank Crowley criminal courthouse to a junior high school where everyone knows and trusts one another. If a lawyer files a motion asserting something, then “there’s no reason to distrust them,” Watkins said.

“Dallas County has been on the honor system a long time,” Watkins said.
One notable factibite that doesn't get enough attention when discussing the merits of commercial bail bonds: Cathy Braddock at the Harris County DA's office told the reporters that "in about 90 percent of forfeiture cases, the bondsmen played no role in the rearrest ... Usually, Braddock said, defendants are rearrested during traffic stops because of the active warrants." If the government is really responsible for 90 percent of rearrests, the cost-benefit case for commercial bail - which has been outlawed nearly everywhere else on the planet - gets much, much weaker, even if rearrest rates weren't fraudulently inflated.

This excellent story is part of a series in the Dallas News over the last several months on the bail bond industry, and at the end of the story they summarized key findings from past reports:
  • Current and former bail bondsmen and attorneys authorized to write bonds owed the county $35 million in unpaid judgments, some dating back decades and thus uncollectable.
  • The county did not have a system to track bond forfeiture cases to make sure those with final judgments were paid on time.
  • For some lawyers authorized to write bail bonds, the business can be lucrative. It is largely unregulated, allowing many lawyers to walk away from money owed to the county.
  • District Attorney Craig Watkins, whose office is responsible for seeking judgments against bondsmen, still owed Denton County more than $3,400 from when he wrote bonds as a defense lawyer.
  • Dallas County until recently was charging bondsmen bargain rates for fees owed when their clients missed court, and the county had not been charging interest on money owed.
  • Some criminal court judges and the DA’s office have been letting bondsmen off the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in court judgments against them, in many cases with no explanation of their decisions.
Journalists elsewhere should take note of Kevin and Ed's methodologies and think about how they might apply them on their own local beats. This is reportorial work about a critically important but little-discussed aspect of the justice system that could be recreated (with some time and a lot of legwork, admittedly) in most jurisdictions in the state.



Anonymous said...

Do you know if there is a way to find out which bail bondsmen are doing this? Specifically a way to search to see if one particular one has done so?

Anonymous said...

b) For the purposes of Subsection (a)(2) of this article, the bond is discharged and the surety is absolved of liability on the bond on the sheriff's verification of the incarceration of the accused.

So why is the sheriff not verifying the incarceration as prescribed by statute or does this not aplly to bail bond board counties?

Anonymous said...

"...honor system..." and "...tight knit group..."
should be exchanged for "corruption" and "organized crime."

Sound like it might be time for a thorough investigation, of a protological nature.