Our Friend, The Bail Bondsman

As I read this piece by Adam Liptak in the New York Times, I wondered to myself, “had Liptak ever met a bail bondsman in the Bronx?”  The story carries a dateline from Fort Lauderdale, Florida (where all good New York journalism comes from in the winter), and Liptak describes the bondsman’s office has looking like a dentists’ office.
I’ve been to the office of dentists and bondsmen.  They didn’t look anything alike.

There is no scuzzier business on the face of the earth than bail bondsman.  I represent one.  I have one bondsman that I trust and to whom I send clients when they need one.  But there is nothing recognizable in Liptak’s description to my experience with bondsmen.

It’s a business of misery.  People go there in desperation, a loved one arrested and held in jail.  Usually, they are poor and can’t post bail for the release.  They are treated like scum.  They take it because they have no choice; they need the bondsman at that moment far more than the bondsman needs them. 

The story makes it sound as if this is a business with rules.  While bondsman are nothing more than insurance brokers issuing insurance policies on the return of a defendant to court, there is no feeling that you’re in “good hands.”  Forget this nonsense about a 10% fee.  They demand whatever collateral they can get, even if you’re the best flight risk in town.  They never want to be left holding the bag, and they are not doing this for love.  This is a cold, hard business, and the bondsman intends to win every deal.

The fee they charge, regardless of guilt or innocence, regardless of flight or return, is a shady matter.  When I send a client to my trusted bondsman, I make sure that there is no over-reaching on the fee nor collateral.  It’s part of my job as their lawyer.  But when people come who have already been to the bondsman, I’m shocked to learn of gross overcharging, with outrageous fees paid up front.  But then, they wanted to get their loved one out and that was all the money they had in the world.

As Jeralyn from  TalkLeft comments, it’s a system that discriminates against the poor, and indeed it does.  People with money post bail directly.  In New York, they lose 3% to the State if the defendant is convicted.  Call it a “convenience fee,” since it’s convenient for the state to take money from people who everybody hates. 

People who don’t have the funds to post bail directly has no choice but to go to the bail bondsman, and pay whatever they extort.  Fees of 25%, 50%, are common but unspoken.  It’s flagrantly illegal, but who’s going to complain?  It’s cash that goes directly into the pocket, and there’s no proof it ever happened.

Even in the sanitized world of bail bondsmen that Liptak writes about, the business is despised and rejected.  It’s an American invention, but four states have outlawed it. 

“It’s really the only place in the criminal justice system where a liberty decision is governed by a profit-making businessman who will or will not take your business.”

There’s nothing more American than free enterprise, even when it comes to freedom.  But the problem is that the consumers of bond services have no other option.  Either the defendant stays in jail or they pay the bondsman. 

Why can’t people put up 10% of the bond, the amount they would theoretically pay the bondsman for his fee, to the court and get the defendant out?  Many people who lack experience with the New York system think this is how it works.  It could be, though this would produce an anomaly, since a judge has already decided that a particular number is warranted to assure the defendant’s return to court.  If the family only had to post 10% of that amount, then the judge would simply increase the bail amount to compensate, putting equally out of reach.

And nowhere in Liptak’s story is there any mention of the dark side of the bail bondsman’s trade, the bounty hunter.  He’s the fellow who comes after the defendant who doesn’t return to court, the guy who costs the bondsman money.  Talk about lawlessness, there’s nothing meaner than a bondsman who gets beat and has to pay his “hard earned” money to the court. 

Like I said, bail bonding is one scuzzy business.

6 comments on “Our Friend, The Bail Bondsman

  1. Windypundit

    Man, am I naive. Not so much about bail bondsmen—I knew I was ignorant about that business—but about the state.

    They make 3% on bail if the defendant is convicted? What, like the defendant’s family was defrauding the state by bailing out a guilty person?

    I thought the purpose of bail was to make sure the defendant showed up. Well, if he’s found guilty, then obviously he showed up enough, right? I’m a little stunned that the state is just reaching into the defendant’s pocket because they can. Like I said, naive.

    So, if your client is charged with 72 felonies and held on a million dollars bond, but you knock out all the charges except an attempted misdemeanor, does the state get 3% of the original million?

  2. Gregory Conen

    Several thoughts.

    First, if Judges would set reasonable, equitable bails, the “justice for sale” thing wouldn’t be an issue. If rich people routinely make bail on their own, and poor people don’t, judges are setting bail for the poor too high (or for the rich too low, perhaps).

    Second, what is the liability for bounty hunters if someone (other than the defendant) has their rights violated? The required steps the police must take are balanced by a degree of immunity from liability (when acting in good faith).

  3. SHG

    I’ll let the judges know that you say they’re doing a lousy of setting bail.  I’ve told them that a few times, but they were unimpressed.

    Bounty hunters are not state actors, like police officers.  The Constitution forbids government from violating rights; private parties can violate the Constitution at will.  They may be subject to criminal and civil liability for doing so (which police officers, in their personal capacity, generally are not), but the Constitution has nothing to do with them.

  4. Gregory Conen

    I assume bounty hunters receive some protection. Grabbing a bail jumper presumably is not kidnapping. What if they grab someone who merely looks like a bail jumper?

    Is breaking into the jumper’s house breaking and entering? What about his friends house (if he’s there or if he’s not)?

    You don’t need to answer all these questions. That could take a whole blog post or more. Just a general idea of how bounty hunting interacts with the law would be nice. Or, if you think it’s off topic, don’t answer. It’s your blog.

  5. SHG

    Here’s some basic stuff on bounty hunters.  Read it carefully, as there may be a pop quiz.

    Bail Enforcement Agents must comply with the following for licensure: [NY General Business Law § 70-72]

    • Submit an application including the full name, age, residences within the past three years, present and previous occupations of each person or individual so signing the same,
    • Be a citizen or permanent resident of the United States
    • Be of good character, competency and integrity
    • Submit photographs and fingerprints
    • Submit to a background check
    • Post a $500,000 bond
    • Pay examination and license fees and pass examination
    • Demonstrate at least three years of regular employment performing such duties or providing such services as described as those furnished by a bail enforcement agent, as a sheriff, police officer, investigator, or employee of a licensed private investigator, or has had an equivalent position and experience or that such person or member was an employee of a police department who rendered service therein as a police officer for not less than twenty years or was an employee of a fire department who rendered service therein as a fire marshal for not less than twenty years.
    • The person or member meeting the above experience requirement and any person or member of such firm, company, partnership or corporation who engages in the apprehension and return of suspects must either satisfactorily complete a basic certification course in training for bail enforcement agents offered by a provider that is approved by the secretary of state; or such person or member must have served as a police officer for a period of not less than three years.
      • The basic course of training shall include at least twenty-five hours of training approved by the secretary of state and must include instruction on issues involved with the rights and limitations involving the bailee/fugitive who signs a contract with the bail enforcement agent. Completion of the course shall be for educational purposes only and not intended to confer the power of arrest of a peace officer or public officer, or agent of any federal, state, or local government, unless the person is so employed by a governmental agency.
    • Non-residents must provide written consent to the jurisdiction of the courts of New York

    Bounty Hunters Threaten Americans in Their Own Homes

    Washington, D.C., September 15, 1997 — “Americans are protected by law from unlawful arrests made by police officers; but incredibly, they are not protected from bounty hunters who are ‘wannabe’ law enforcers out on the loose and out of control,” noted Gerald Lefcourt, President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in the wake the recent fatal double shootings in Phoenix. . . .

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