Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Brownsville PD can't or won't regulate predatory bail practices in their own house

In Brownsville, police are unable to enforce regulations on bail bond companies, they say, literally when the violations are occurring inside police headquarters, which also houses the municipal court. "Throngs" of bail bondsmen gather there each day in violation of county regs while officials look the other way, reported the Brownsville Herald ("Bail company solicitation violations rampant," May 23):
The Cameron County Bail Bond Board prohibits bail bond companies from approaching people to ask for business in a police station, jail, prison, detention facility or anywhere on state, city or county property where people are detained by law enforcement.

Penalties can range from loss of a surety license to a public reprimand or return of the fees charged in the transaction.

The violation is rampant in Brownsville, and allows bondsmen to take advantage of stressed people unfamiliar with the bail system, police and those interviewed for this article said.

The Brownsville Police Department is investigating two complaints received last week regarding bondsmen soliciting clients inside the police department.

On any given morning, throngs of bondsmen are in or near the courtroom inside the Brownsville Police Department, hoping to get business from those arrested the previous night.
Ironically, "A warning sign on the door advises bondsman of the county regulation." So essentially as one walks through the police department into the municipal court in Brownsville, one receives the implicit message, fair or not, that this is a place where the law is honored mostly in the breach. A comparable image might be a "No smoking" sign on the wall with "throngs" of smokers casually puffing away around it. Or the corner near my neighborhood where years ago the city put up "Drug Free Zone" signs under which teenagers stand around slinging dope. Except this operation is going on literally inside the police department.

The explanations for non-enforcement seem inexplicable, with police saying to stop the practice an "officer has to keep watch." But that's just rationalization. Is there really no bailiff in the municipal court, no clerk? Not a single court officer who could approach bail bondsmen and tell them they have to leave? Even if not, an officer wouldn't even need to be stationed there full time. Dropping by one or two times each morning to chase off the vultures would likely be sufficient - it's not like they'd have to travel far. That's an excuse, not a reason.

Municipal courts handle only Class C misdemeanors which carry no jail time and a maximum fine of $500. But an anecdote was recorded of one Brownsville bail bondsmen (regrettably unnamed by the reporter) who approached a confused woman and convinced her to give him $300 to get her husband released.
[Elane] Flores said she felt vulnerable and desperate that morning, late in December, and too willingly handed over a wad of cash to a stranger. She said the bondsman took the money and walked away without offering a receipt or business card.

“As soon as he took the money and started leaving, my heart started racing. There was no business card. Everything was sinking in,” Flores said.

The man did bail out her husband, but she was out several hundred dollars. The company did not call her to tell her it posted bond, nor did it openly communicate afterward, she said.

They refunded her $150 of the $300 after she repeatedly complained.
How did they arrive at the $300 figure? It was "all the cash she had available," the paper reported. The atmosphere surrounding the transaction reminds me of experiences traveling in Turkey where hawkers from hotels and other vendors would mercilessly accost confused tourists with sales pitches the moment they get off the bus. The price of the services offered, like the bail bondsman's in the story, always seemed to vary based on the mark's customer's ability to pay..

But let's leave aside for a moment WHERE the transaction took place. In Grits' opinion, a bondsman attempting to charge 60% of the maximum fine to get Class C misdemeanants released is little better than a straight-up hustler or con man preying on the vulnerable. If that's legal, it's a legalized swindle, akin to some of the legalized (or at least, unprosecuted and unrestrained) cheating that goes on on Wall Street. To have it taking place inside the police station, however, awards the practice in the public eye with law enforcement's implicit stamp of approval. I'm sure it seems like business as usual to those involved, but to Grits the whole situation appears incredibly cynical and brazen.

How much do you wanna bet the "solution" proposed will be to eliminate the regulation instead of enforce it?

UPDATE/CORRECTIONS: A pair of commenters have corrected two misconceptions in this post: First, the ban on soliciting in the police department isn't just a county reg, as reported in the story, it's a Class B misdemeanor to "solicit bonding business in a police station, jail, prison, detention facility, or other place of detainment for persons in the custody of law enforcement." Second, another commenter informs us the municipal court in this case "handles magistration of all crimes, not only Class Cs," which much better explains the gaggle of bondsmen. Still, Ms. Flores' husband was arrested for public intoxication, a Class C offense, so the critique about charging 60% of the maximum fine amount for Class C bonds still holds.


gilbert g. garcia said...

It is a crime. Not a regulation. See Occupations Code Sec. 1704.304. PROHIBITED RECOMMENDATIONS OR SOLICITATIONS; OFFENSE.
(c) A bail bond surety or an agent of a bail bond surety may not solicit bonding business in a police station, jail, prison, detention facility, or other place of detainment for persons in the custody of law enforcement.

(e) A person commits an offense if the person violates this section. An offense under this section is a Class B misdemeanor.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

But Gilbert, it would be impossible to enforce! Brownsville PD said so! ;)

Anonymous said...

The court is attached to the lobby of the police dept. The cops can't seem to patrol their own front lobby. Wow!

Actually, every so often, the police chief gives a strong warning to the bondsmen about this practice. He will ban them from the lobby and the parking lot. Things quiet down for about a month before they resume.

(as an aside: the court handles magistrations of all crimes, not only Class Cs).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks 2:51, that makes more sense if they're doing magistration there (though that's unusual for a muni court). Still seems vulture-ish, though, and if Gilbert is right, illegal.

I'll bet going to the lobby one day and arresting all the bondsmen, charging them all with Class B misdemeanors, would instantly stop the practice. You'd only have to do that once and they'd just stop.

Anonymous said...

I say enhance the crime to a felony with mandatory jail time if an oyster was involved.