When Starley Alton Higgins failed to show up for court last year, Waco bail bondsman Terry Chapman knew he had to find Higgins or pay up.
But instead of paying the $5,000 bond when Chapman couldn’t locate the 64-year-old repeat drunken driver, the bondsman negotiated a settlement with the District Attorney’s Office to pay 55 percent, or $2,250, of the bond after it was forfeited.
McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna said his office’s new policy of negotiating settlements in bond forfeiture cases, rather than holding the bondsmen to pay the full amount, started soon after he took office in January.
It is part of his office overhaul intended to expedite criminal cases and free judges’ dockets for what Reyna describes as more important matters.
He said his system also guarantees at least partial payments of the bond; removes frequent requests from bondsmen to delay the process; and eliminates the possibility of them seeking their money back after two years, which is allowed under state law, Reyna said.
Reyna also said his bond deals will give bondsmen more incentive to quickly search for their scofflaw clients.
But Chapman and fellow bondsman Charlie Pickens said there already is plenty of incentive for them to find their clients — they don’t want to have to pay the bond set by the judge and don’t have to if they can get the bail jumper back in custody within nine months in felony cases.
Both said they pursue bond jumpers as diligently as possible regardless of whether the DA offers a lower deal.
But Reyna claims many bondsmen don’t actively seek the jumpers, hoping they will get in trouble again and end up back in jail. Others, Reyna said, wait until the DA files paperwork to forfeit the bond, seek 30-day postponements of their court hearings and only then start trying to track down their clients before the hearing.
“I don’t want the bondsmen waiting around for nine months to see who shows up or who gets arrested again,” Reyna said. “My motivation in this is to push the incentive to find them to the front of the process while the trail is still warm. It also improves judicial efficiency. My office is trying criminal cases. We don’t want to tie up the court’s time arguing about money.”
Although Reyna said his plan offers an incentive for early capture and he doesn’t want bondsmen “waiting around” for nine months, his bond negotiations only begin after the nine-month grace period is up.
Ralph Strother and Matt Johnson, the county’s felony court judges, said they have encouraged Reyna’s office to negotiate most of the bond forfeiture cases so their already crowded dockets won’t take on more business.
Judgment hearings in bond forfeiture cases are civil matters, and all parties are entitled to have their day in court if settlements are not reached, the judges said.
“Bond forfeitures were never designed to be a revenue-raising device, and we do not treat it that way,” Strother said. “The whole purpose of the bail system is to ensure the presence of the accused and if we get them here, then that is what we are striving for to see that justice gets done.
“Most lawsuits are settled by negotiation. Most criminal cases are settled by negotiation. This is just another aspect of that. If we have to go to trial on these cases to collect every penny on the dollar, we would just be covered up with these types of litigation,” he said.
Johnson said there are also business reasons to negotiate settlements in bond forfeiture cases.
“We could forfeit every single one of them, but you would run every bondsman in the county out of business and the county jail would have to be three times the size it is now,” Johnson said.
Reyna’s predecessor, John Segrest, didn’t negotiate settlements in bond forfeitures on felony cases, but settled for 50 percent in misdemeanor bond cases, county officials and bail bondsmen said.
“I think our system of bond forfeitures, with the multiple steps that it takes to finally get to the bond forfeiture, has the appropriate amount of carrots and sticks to achieve the goal of getting the wanted person back in custody,” Johnson said.
Money collected from bond forfeiture judgments goes into the county’s fund to build and repair roads and bridges. According to records, the county collected $50,000 in felony bond forfeitures in 2009; $36,694 in 2010; and $41,273 in felony bond forfeitures through the first eight months of this year.
Contract with county
Pickens said a bail bond is a contract between him and the county and between him and the defendant. If he’s forced to pay a forfeited bond, Pickens can try to recoup some of his money by suing the jumper and any person who might have signed the contract with him or her, such as a parent.
But in 16 years as a bondsman, Pickens said he has only sued one defendant, getting a $23,000 judgment that he said he will never be able to collect.
“It’s hard times out there and people don’t have any money,” he said. “It doesn’t do any good to go after them because they simply can’t pay.”
The bond forfeiture process starts when a defendant who is free on bond misses a court appearance. Defendants in criminal cases pay bail bondsmen 10 to 15 percent of the amount of their bonds as a fee to get them out of jail.
Bail bonds are not supposed to be punitive, but are designed to induce defendants to come to court for hearings and trial, the judges said.
Judges forfeit bonds to the county if defendants who jump bail are not recaptured within a nine-month grace period. But judges and prosecutors have broad discretion about how to handle forfeiture cases.
If the felony defendant is not back in custody within nine months, the district attorney’s office notifies the bondsman of the state’s intent to collect the bond amount.
It is then that the negotiation process begins, and some are settled by agreement between the bondsmen and the DA’s office.
When a judge grants a judgment, the bail bondsmen have 30 days to pay or the county suspends their right to make bonds until they do. Payments are made quickly, county bail bond coordinator Sharon Payne said.
“Usually, the minute that happens, the bondsmen hurry over and pay it off,” she said. “If they don’t, they can’t make bonds and they are out of business. So those get paid off very quickly.”
In McLennan County, court records show the vast majority of summary judgment cases are dismissed outright or dismissed with court costs because the defendant was caught and returned to custody within the nine-month grace period.
Johnson conducted summary judgment hearings in 31 bond forfeiture cases on Sept. 16. Of those, 17 were dismissed with court costs of around $300; one was dismissed with no cost; 10 were dismissed because the district attorney’s office did not seek indictments within the statutory requirement; and three were reset.
Bondsmen often escape paying bond forfeitures because their clients were not indicted within 90 days.
To stop this, Reyna said he has created an intake division that screens cases quickly and gets them ready for a grand jury for indictment. He hopes that will eliminate at least that defense by bondsmen to keep from paying forfeitures.
Negotiating down a bond also restricts the bondsmen’s requests for postponements in their forfeiture cases and eliminates an avenue of appeal the bondsmen could use to recoup their money after a bond is paid off, Reyna said.
The appeal, known as a special bill of review, allows bondsmen to request their money back if their client is back in custody up to two years after the forfeiture. But Judges Strother and Johnson said those appeals are rare.
Under Reyna’s bond deal system, bondsmen pay 55 percent of the original bond, but they waive future postponements and their right to file bills of review. That disposes of the cases quicker and the county gets a least a portion of the money, he said.
John McCluskey, of Houston, president of the Professional Bondsmen of Texas, said negotiated bond settlements are common across Texas, although he declined to speculate what percentage of counties do it.
Kathy Braddock, chief of the bond forfeiture division for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, teaches seminars on bond forfeiture procedures to the state bondsmen group, the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, law enforcement officials and others.
She estimates the majority of DA’s offices in Texas negotiate bond forfeiture cases, especially in smaller, understaffed offices, because they require so much time and effort.
“A lot of counties in Texas negotiate bond forfeitures because they are a very paper-intensive civil lawsuit, and because it is so paper intensive, it becomes overly cumbersome to a lot of DA’s offices to get all the paperwork done within all the proper time lines,” she said.
“So a lot of DAs and county attorneys tell local bondsmen, ‘OK. Here is the deal. If you get your guy in within a certain number of days, then you pay a certain percentage of the bond.’ The settlement deals kind of run the gamut across the state.
“But if the bondsmen are finding defendants and bringing them in, that is what you really want. If they know you are going to come to them for the money, they are going to look for them,” she said.
An investigation by The Dallas Morning News this summer revealed that there might be as much as $35 million worth of uncollected court judgments against bail bondsmen and attorneys who write bail bonds in Dallas County because there was no system in place to collect them.
Dallas County officials have since scrambled to see how they can rectify the situation.
Braddock said her office in Harris County does not negotiate bond deals, taking 100 percent of the forfeitures when warranted. That, she said, is because her office has the resources, including herself, two assistant district attorneys, a paralegal and two assistants, to handle the work.