August 5, 2008

Inside the Bail Business

ORLANDO, Fla. _ If you're arrested, a bail bondsman can be your best friend or worst enemy.

Bondsmen hold the "get-out-of-jail" card, but unlike the game of Monopoly, it's not free. And once they secure your release, your level of freedom may be just a little greater than it was when you were behind bars.

Do what the bail bondsman asks and show up for all your court dates, however, and you'll be fine. Slip up, and you could be headed back to the slammer.

"All I have done is expand the walls of your incarceration," said Kim Palmer, who owns bail-bond agencies in two Central Florida counties. "I am your jailer."

When a person is arrested, they can be required to post bail to assure that, if released, they will show up for all their court dates. Bail amounts can range from a few hundred dollars to $1 million or more, depending on the severity of the offense, but has nothing to do with punishment for the crime charged.

There are two options for posting bail. You can pay the entire amount in cash at the jail or you can hire a bondsman such as Palmer, who guarantees the money will be paid if you don't show up in court.

Her level of confidence that a person will show up for all court dates determines how strict she will be, and how much collateral she will require, before she posts a bond for someone.

Bail bondsmen are notified at least 72 hours before any court dates for their customers. That's why Palmer makes criminal suspects tell her where they will be, and why, in some cases, they are not allowed to travel outside a specific area without permission.

"Some people, I don't let them go out of the county," she said. Others have to check in by phone every day.

"It's a judgment call," she said.

It's that judgment call that sets bail bondsmen apart. Much of what they do is strictly regulated by state laws.

For instance, in Florida, they all charge 10 percent of the bail amount _ with a minimum fee of $100 _ to get someone out of jail. That fee is not refunded, no matter the outcome of the case.

Someone with a $10,000 bail must pay a fee of $1,000. Otherwise, they would have to post the entire $10,000 with the court clerk, who holds the money until the case is concluded.

In the past, when a cash bond was posted, the person got all of the money back once the case was resolved, Palmer said.

But a Florida law that took effect July 1, 2005, requires court fees, court costs and criminal penalties to be deducted from the cash bond before it is returned.

For that reason, it's often cheaper to pay a bail bondsman's fee than to risk losing the cash bond, Palmer said.

In some cases, especially involving a small bail amount, Palmer requires the entire amount to be given to her, in cash or by credit card, before she gets someone out of jail.

She works under the authority of a surety company, paying them a portion of her fee for a bond that guarantees payment if the arrestee skips.

Palmer, who has been in the business more than 15 years, has the authority to write bonds up to $100,000. To write a higher bond, she has to prove to the surety company she has the collateral needed to cover the bond.

When a defendant who is out of jail on a surety bond misses a court date, the bail bondsman has 60 days to locate him and return him to jail. Otherwise, the entire bail amount must be paid.

In some cases, when a defendant makes a mistake or there are extenuating circumstances, Palmer will ask a judge to reset a missed court date. If they don't, she sometimes posts a second bond for the defendant, for which her customer will be charged a second fee.

Once the 60 days have expired, it's the bail bondsman, not the surety company, who pays the money to the clerk of the court, Palmer said. The surety company's bond is a guarantee. If a bail bondsman begins using the bonds to cover skips, they will soon be dropped by the company and out of business, she said.

Once a bail bondsman posts the bail with the clerk, there are still two years to get some of it back.

"I'm going to be looking for your butt for two years," Palmer said. However, the longer it takes, the less money she'll get back. At the two-year mark, the clerk refunds half of the money.

"After two years, you don't get anything," she said. But that doesn't mean she won't turn in a defendant even after the time has expired.

A bail bondsman can track down and capture someone who has skipped out on their bail, even if it means crossing state lines.

A lot of the bail business, however, is routine. There are people Palmer has bonded out of jail "hundreds of times," she said. They have a proven track record with her, and she often requires no collateral. If a lawyer calls about a client or a well known business owner contacts her about an employee, Palmer often will get them out of jail before she even collects the fee.

It's the new customers _ especially the tourists _ who have to jump through the extra hoops.

The collateral she requires can range from letting her hold the entire bail amount to having someone put up the deed to their home. During Bike Week, it's not unusual for the garage of her Daytona Beach, Fla., office to be filled with high-priced motorcycles she is holding.

"I've been offered their wives, sons and daughters, but 'Don't take my Harley,'" she said, laughing. Unfortunately, sometimes that is the only way she knows they will show up for court.


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