Out on bail: Bail bondsman has important role in criminal justice system

By Roberta M. Gubbins

Legal News

When most of us think of the criminal justice system, we think of the police who investigate, the prosecutors who charge the crime, the defense attorneys who defend the accused and judges who keep order in the courtroom. Another important and necessary player, however, is the bail bondsman.

In order to understand their role, it is necessary to comment on bail, which goes back to English common law and arrived in this country with the settlers. In its simplest form, bail is a sum of money, real property, or surety bond that is deposited with the court by defendants to guarantee their appearance in court. The judge sets the amount of bail required for the defendant's release before trial.

There are two main forms of pretrial release: secured and unsecured. Unsecured or "personal recognizance" is a promise by defendants that they will return to court when ordered. Secured pretrial release involves the payment of a financial form of security with the court to guarantee the defendant's appearance. The forms of secured release are:

* Cash bail--defendant posts full amount of bail.

* Deposit bail--defendant pays the court a small percentage of the bond set.

* Surety bail--a private party such as a bail bondsperson posts the bond and guarantees appearance of the defendant in court

How does the process begin?

"We can be notified by the defendant who calls us collect from the jail," said Leo Urban, president of Leo's Bail Bonds, "or we are contacted by a family member who is outside the jail."

At this point, he explained, the judge has set the dollar amount of the bail so the question is "how much will it take to get him out (of jail)?" That depends on the terms of the bail; "we call the jail to check it out and to verify that the defendant doesn't have any other warrants." Once the amount of the bond is known, the fees are set. The bond premium charged by the bail agency for posting the bond is usually 10 percent and proof of assets equal to the full bond amount.

"Usually," said Urban, "the application forms are completed in our office, then one of our people posts the bond in the jail." The defendant signs the bond application, which includes a promise to make all court appearances until the court declares the matter concluded.

"If the defendant doesn't show up for a hearing, then it becomes a forfeiture with intent to enter judgment. As long as we get him back in within 28 days, it won't go into judgment status."

If the defendant is not returned to custody within the time stated, the court can enter a judgment against the bail bondsman for payment of the full amount of the bond. If, on the other hand, the defendant returns, the court can reinstate the bond with additional fees, which, if paid by the bonding agency, are passed on to the defendant.

In situations where the bonding agency doesn't pay the bond when ordered by the court, it can add a 20 percent charge on top of the bond.

"For example, if it's a $7,500 bond, it's $7,500 plus 20 percent or an additional $1,500, so it can get expensive." And family members or friends of the defendant who have placed their assets at risk for the amount of the bond could lose those assets.

Thus there is a strong financial incentive to get defendants to show up for court.

Licensing in Michigan

According to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), bail bondsmen representing surety and fidelity insurers must be licensed. To become licensed, the resident applicant must take the limited lines Property and Casualty (P& C) exam and hold the Surety, Limited Lines P&C, or full P&C line of authority, as well as an active fidelity and surety appointment with each insurer.

A new test specifically designed for bail bondsmen is being developed and will be available in 2013.

"Before," Urban said, "agents had to take the Property and Casualty test, which had nothing to do with our business. Now, when I send agents (who have passed the exam) out, I will know that they know what to do."

Bondsmen must apply for and receive prior approval of their financial status and business character by each court and jurisdiction in which they operate. Since each county, Urban explained, has its own registration forms, requirements, and procedures, the yearly procedure takes a lot of time.

"We do 65 packets that we mail to the court administrator for each county every year."

Prior to opening Leo's Bail Bonds 24 years ago, Urban served "almost 17 years with the city and the county as a police officer." He operates in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, and is looking to open a general agency in Florida. He has two associates degrees from Kirkland College, one in criminal justice administration and one in business administration.

Published: Wed, Aug 22, 2012