Monday, June 1, 2009

Get of Jail Free

Name Your Price If you practice criminal law, you have probably run through the gauntlet of bail bondsmen at certain state courthouse entranceways. These burly purveyors of freedom jam their shiny business cards into pant pockets, pay phones, and bathroom stalls. Their endless supply of laminated solicitations litter court hallways creating a messy rainbow of 3.5 by 2 in. offers to temporarily end your client's incarceration at a reduced rate. Others hover around courtrooms and jailhouses waiting for you to exit with desperate family members with tempting offers to undercut their competitors. It bothers me that this daily scene is played out next door to the very courthouse I was sworn in as an attorney. Ethics is a pet peeve of mine. Maybe I read too many Superman comics as a kid. Maybe I believed in Santa Claus a little too long. Is it just me or do you get the feeling some bondsmen only refer clients to certain attorneys? Do you ever wonder what type, if any, arrangements are involved? If my "spider sense" is true, I have no respect for lawyers who use runners or give kickbacks to generate business. To me, it suggests that these attorneys do not have the "chops" to generate work based on their skills. They must resort to unethical behavior to compete. But I digress. Maybe I'm a little out of line. Maybe I'm just a conspiracy nut. I just wish there weren't so many unscrupulous squirrels out there. * Now, before I continue, I think it is important to mention that many bondsmen do follow the rules and it is unfair to lump them all into the same category. Like lawyers, bondsmen tend to get a bad rap based on a few bad apples. But I am not the only one who thinks this is a problem. Many bondsmen I have spoken to are fed up. The CT Law Tribune recently did a piece on a few of the dishonest ones entitled "Paying a Price for Dishonest Bail Bondsmen." Written by Christian Nolan, the article claims that cost-cutting tactics implemented by these bondsmen put dangerous criminals on the street. The way things are now, if a judge sets bail for $10,000, a criminal defendant can probably find a bondsman willing to bail him out for as little as one government issued mini-portrait of Benjamin Franklin. * What is this Priceline? Can we soon expect William Shatner in courthouse doorways carrying a bumper sticker clad briefcase advertising some local bond company? Under state statute, the aforementioned defendant should be paying a minimum of $850. I can only imagine that it makes the job a lot harder for the ethical bondsmen. How could they compete with such blatant undercutting? Some argue that these bondsmen are doing a service to the community. They are giving poorer defendants the same chance to get out of jail that is afforded to their wealthier counterparts. They'll have more money for better legal representation. Undercutting reduces overcrowding in jails. * I disagree. I think we must also consider the long term effects. In an effort to insure certain criminals stay in jail, it is not that far fetched to think judges will be forced to raise bond amounts across the board. As the competition gets fiercer, the temptation for corruption will intensify. If bondsmen are forced to match low ball offers in an increasingly competitive market, some will likely resort to additional sources of revenue to make up the difference. Chances are that source of extra cash will be from the pockets of some scalywag shark looking for a bondsman willing to feed him a steady diet of client chum. * According to the Tribune article, the Connecticut legislature is considering a measure that would increase state oversight of private bail bondsmen. The article quotes Mary Anne Casey, of Hartford's Casey Bail Bonds. Casey is the senior vice president of a trade group called the Professional Bail Agents of the United States.In the Tribune article Casey states her belief that lives have been lost due because defendants have gotten out on discount bonds. She recalls the case of Russell Peeler Jr. who took part in a drive by shooting in Bridgeport. His bail was set at $900,000. Following the state statute formula, Peeker should have had to pay in excess of $63,000 to get out on bond. Instead, his buddies paid a bondsmen $50,000 to get him out. Not a bad pay day. Unfortunately, as soon as Peeler got out he killed a 30 year old mother and her 8 year old son, witnesses to his case. Today, Peeler is one of the ten men on Connecticut's death row.As Casey notes in the article “people are getting out for $100, $200, anything goes and no one is stopping it,” said Casey. She said defendants with $100,000 bail are getting out for as little as $1,000. “All day long and there is nothing in statutes to prevent that.” * State Insurance Commissioner Thomas R. Sullivan's department oversees bail bondsmen complained to the General Assembly that it is hard to prove undercutting when cash is involved.According to the CT Tribune, Sullivan noted that “the department continues to be frustrated in its efforts to regulate undercutting because there is never going to be a complaining witness – as the only witness, the defendant, has no reason to complain since they paid less for the bond than what was owed”.Under the current system, a bondsman takes their cut off the top. Next, they submit the remainder of the premium to the surety company. According to the Tribune,"a bill passed out of the Insurance and Real Estate Committee would require bail bondsmen to remit the entire premium to the bail bond underwriter or surety company that actually bears the risk and loses money if the defendant flees. The bondsmen would later receive their commissions". Casey is pleased that Connecticut legislators are making an effort to solve the problem. She is, however, upset that undercutting doesn't result in criminal charges. We'll have to wait and see if the measure passes.

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