Bobby Berreta’s office was on 161st Street in the Bronx, between the Supreme Court and Criminal Court just below the Grand Concourse. It was a crappy little storefront, with a pull-down gate and a sign that guaranteed that the guy inside had no aesthetic at all. It read, “Berreta Bail Bonds.”
Bobby was short and fat, but he usually had a smile on his face. When he didn’t, he made Sam Gompers look handsome. He sat in his crappy little office with a picture of a yacht behind him. There was a lot of money to be made on 161st Street. Cash money.
Phil worked for Bobby. He was part errand boy, part skip-tracer. Phil was the guy who would meet up in court with the paperwork, take the fee and security and file the bond with the court. He met me for a graveyard arraignment. When I called, he came. If I told him that it was a good bond, that the guy wouldn’t run, there was never any problem. My clients didn’t run, and they never lost a dime on me.
Later, when the bond was exonerated, I asked Bobby for the refund of the security, and he had no clue what I was talking about. It seemed Phil filed the bond, but pocketed the money, so Bobby never saw it. Phil had been in the wind for a few months by that point. Bobby and I had a difference of opinion about who was responsible for the refund. He argued it was Phil’s problem. I argued Phil was his guy, so he was responsible. It was the last time I used Bobby.
About the same time, a young guy, Ira Judalson, had opened up shop. He was kin to the folks in Jersey who owned International Fidelity Insurance, so he had the inside track. Bail bonds are nothing more than insurance policies that defendants buy and are payable to the court if they violate the terms. The fee paid is an insurance premium. The security deposited is to assure compliance with the requirements, foremost of which is to appear in court as required.
Ira and I became friends. He was straight with me, took care of my clients and wasn’t nearly as sleazy as his predecessors on the street. His business grew quickly. He had people working for him, taking fees, interviewing family, threatening them about the consequences of taking off.
I never dealt with Ira’s people, but I heard that they were cold. They heard it all, the lies, the sad stories, the excuses. They didn’t care. This was a business and everyone who used this business did so out of necessity. It’s not that they were necessarily untrustworthy clients, but desperate people. They said what they had to say to get their loved one, or their employee, out. It was very pragmatic. If malarkey got them through the day on the street, it would get them past this hard, mean-eyed gatekeeper at Ira’s office. But the guys didn’t care about the stories, just the money.
The vast majority of bonds were for small amounts, and the premiums, the fees, were money thrown in the toilet. Unlike any other insurance, you bought it after you needed it, after the contingency occurred. A family couldn’t afford $10,000, but they could put up the grand premium and an extra grand security. That tapped out the family, but it was what they had to do.
Prosecutors mumble numbers in court, and bobble-headed judges repeat the numbers. Bobby Berreta smiled. Ira Judalson smiled. That’s the world of the bail bondsman, to enjoy business off the misery of others when a kid ADA pulls a number out of his clueless butt under some vague assumption that it will protect society by sucking food off the table of defendants and putting gas in a bondsman’s yacht.
The New York Times tells horror stories of bail bondsmen.
But bondsmen have extraordinary powers that most lenders do not. They are supposed to return their clients to jail if they skip court or do something illegal. But some states give them broad latitude to arrest their clients for any reason — or none at all. A credit card company cannot jail someone for missing a payment. A bondsman, in many instances, can.
Using that leverage, bond agents can charge steep fees, some of which are illegal, with impunity, according to interviews and a review of court records and complaint data. They can also go far beyond the demands of other creditors by requiring their clients to check in regularly, keep a curfew, allow searches of their car or home at any time, and open their medical, Social Security and phone records to inspection.
They keep a close eye on their clients, but in many places, no one is keeping a close eye on them.
This is too broad, too vague, to be of much informative value. It happens differently in differently places, as laws and practice vary. But if you think about it, a business that’s as ripe for abuse as conceivable is also in the middle of morass. Few defendants pack up and take off for an exotic desert island to avoid their low-level drug bust. They may miss court because they forgot the date, or couldn’t find a babysitter, or their boss refused to let them have a day off, and they couldn’t afford to lose the job that took a year to find. But they didn’t abscond. They just didn’t appear.
They would come back the next day, or week, except then they were scared that the judge would put them in, and they would lose their bail bond and sit on the Rock for the next 18 months. It’s not that they didn’t want to show, but that they couldn’t take the hit. When guys like Phil went to find them, they went to their home. They were there. They hadn’t gone to Tahiti. They didn’t know what to do.
The bail bond business is ugly and nasty, like a wart growing out of the system of imposing needless bail on people who can’t afford to pay. But as long as a judge sets bail, your options are to hand over a cashier’s check for $50,000 to the clerk or call Ira. Or, of course, you can sit in a cell until God sorts it out.