Defendants, bondsmen sometimes get off the hook in Tarrant County

Posted Sunday, Apr. 01, 2012

By Yamil Berard

Second of three parts

Some bond agents and the criminal defendants they bailed out catch a lucky break from judges in Tarrant County.

Say the bail bondsman has lost track of the suspect but heard that his family saw him at a buddy's place. Instead of declaring the bond forfeited, the judge may declare it "insufficient" to give the bondsman a little more time to haul the suspect in.

But then maybe the judge gets busy and loses track, or the court coordinator forgets to flag the case for the judge to reconsider.

Months go by, even years. With the bond in limbo, the bond agent might lose interest in tracking the suspect down, and the district attorney can't try to collect.

"I don't even see those," said Assistant District Attorney Ashley Fourt, who handles bond forfeitures.

Since 2009, judges in Tarrant County have declared about $73 million in felony and misdemeanor bonds insufficient, county records show.

There can be good reasons.

State District Judge George Gallagher said he may hold a bond insufficient until a defendant passes a drug test. If the defendant fails, the judge may set a higher bond.

Take the case of a felon arrested in summer 2010 in Haltom City on accusations of unlawful possession of a firearm and released on $10,000 bond. After a new charge was filed against him in River Oaks, a warrant was issued the following January and the judge declared the original bond insufficient.

In February, the judge upped the bond to $25,000. In March, the suspect was indicted in federal court on two counts of mail theft. In April, the judge again declared the bond insufficient and a warrant was issued for the defendant. He wound up being sentenced in federal court.

But keeping up with all the insufficient bond cases can be a problem. Dallas criminal judges have agreed to a policy that if a bond is held insufficient for any reason, the bond is automatically forfeited on the next court date.

"The difficulty with insufficient bonds is that they can fall through the cracks. Without a defendant, they don't get prosecuted," said Steven Bell, an attorney who is on a committee overhauling bail bond practices in Dallas.

Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon says keeping up with insufficient bonds can be a dilemma.

"If a judge wants to grant the bail bondsmen a little time to get that guy in there before or she forfeits the bond, then that's the judge's prerogative," Shannon said.

But Shannon said there have been cases when judges "lingered for a long time before they forfeit the bonds," and the law prevents his office from doing anything.

"If they continue to give them more time, who knows why they are doing it? I have not asked," he said. "But it may be that whoever is on the bond is coming in there whining and crying and saying, 'Oh, judge, I'm about to get him; I know his relatives; he's always hanging out at his brother's house.'

"And the judge wants that person, too, so they cut him some slack.

"I can't say that's right or wrong because it depends on each individual case," Shannon said.

Among state district judges in Tarrant County since 2009, Judge Everett Young's court has declared the highest amount of bonds insufficient, more than $9 million, according to county records. He is trailed by Judge Louis Sturns' court, at about $8 million, according to county records. The judges in criminal district courts have similar totals, with Judge Wayne Salvant's court topping the list at more than $6 million. Among county criminal court judges, Judge Jamie Cummings' court has the most, about $3 million.

In some cases, a bond is repeatedly held insufficient -- records show up to a dozen times. Magistrates may handle many of the bond forfeiture hearings for the judges.

Judges must be vigilant about following up, Salvant said.

There's no better example of the bench's ultimate responsibility for shortcomings in the bond system than when judges declare bonds insufficient but don't later come back to hold the bond agent accountable, he said.

Once that bond is insufficient, the bond agent is "not going to work as hard to find the guy," Salvant said.

Salvant said he reviews monthly printouts of his cases.

A few years ago, he said, he noticed that he "had allowed more time than what I should have." Some bond agents "had all the time in the world."

So he said he put bond agents on notice that he was about to declare the bonds forfeited.

Then he recalled all insufficient cases and declared them forfeitures, in one swoop.

Some people didn't appreciate that.

"Quite frankly, when I started calling insufficients, quite a few bondsmen who had big bonds outstanding, their clients had absconded. So they had to pay large sums," he said, "and some went out of business."

Custody is the point

While Tarrant County may be passing on millions of dollars in forfeited bonds for various reasons, collecting the money isn't really the point in handling forfeiture cases, several officials stressed.

"The first purpose is to get the body back in custody," Shannon said. "Our whole focus is that we would rather have the body."

People who skip out can face a bond-jumping felony, in addition to whatever charge they originally faced, he added.

Bringing in fugitives is also a running theme with judges.

But Harris County Assistant District Attorney Kathy Braddock and others say Tarrant's philosophy overlooks an important component: incentive.

"How do you make the body show up?" she said. "You've got to shake down Mama, Daddy, grandmother, brother, sister, girlfriend. ... Unless you start going after the money, you're not going to get the body."

And to get the body, you go back to the bondsmen or sureties, who guarantee the bond amount. "It's the squeeze," Braddock said. "You've got to squeeze 'em.

"If they're not looking to the sureties, then the sureties are not looking for the defendant and everybody is just laying up on the couch and doing nothing."

The judges will have to drive changes, though, Braddock and officials in the Tarrant district attorney's office said.

Braddock said state law is clear that if a defendant does not appear in court, the judge "shall" declare the bond forfeit. "There's nothing in the code that says there is leeway," she said.

A judge may be justified in waiting an hour or a day for a defendant to show up, she said, but not days, weeks or more.

"Case law does give judges some discretion, but it doesn't give them the discretion to just not do it," she said. "It's mandatory."

Braddock said that if judges don't apply the law, prosecutors should insist that their decisions go on the record. But some prosecutors don't do so, she said, because they don't want to be at odds with judges.

Fourt said she pursues full bail amounts every time a defendant does not appear and time is up.

"At that point in time they're gone, they're gone," Fourt said. "Why should I make anything less? There's no reason to offer anything less. The guy is gone; that was the risk of that bondsman making that bond."

First Assistant District Attorney Marvin Collins said the court plays a key role by setting court dates when suspects jump bail.

"Our ability to settle any kind of case, including this kind of a case, depends on how much pressure is put on the other side by a court setting," Collins said. "If cases aren't set, there's no incentive for anyone to settle."

Others say that the flexibility of the bond forfeiture schedule opens the door to inequities and gaming the system and that judges and court coordinators need to work with the district attorney to create a system that treats everyone the same.

Judges can override any settlement offer the district attorney makes, Fourt stressed. "The judge can say, 'Sorry, I don't think you get a break in this case.'"

Further down the line of players, officials say they see the problems but are powerless to fix them.

District Clerk Tom Wilder, vice chairman of the county bail bond board, has advocated making all bond agents pay the full bond amount on felony bonds after 270 days. But he said he can't make it happen.

"This is nothing we have any control over," Wilder said. "You have to talk to the judge to get an explanation of why they extend some and not others.

"It would be fairer to everyone if the forfeiture schedule the judges approved was strictly followed."

Tarrant County Commissioner J.D. Johnson, chairman of the bail bond board, said collecting the full bond amount should be a priority. But a number of times, he said, he has pressed officials at the district attorney's office, to no avail.

"It is explained what they did, the legal steps they took, which is very understandable, and that was sort of the end of it," he said, adding that he is not qualified to advise on bond forfeitures. "I don't want to get into the judge's business or the DA's business," he said.

Some judges say that with their crowded dockets, they have little time to review forfeitures.

"No need to," said Judge Molly Jones of County Criminal Court 6, who handles misdemeanor cases. "Most of them are settled prior to court."

State District Judge Mollee Westfall also said the cases can be settled out of court, adding that she has never had a full-blown bond forfeiture hearing with contested issues of fact for her to decide.

Other judges say that since September, they have turned over forfeiture cases to the county's three appointed magistrates. Besides other responsibilities, the magistrates set bond and handle forfeiture hearings.

“We gave them that chore,” Salvant said.

But judges in felony cases are still responsible for tracking insufficient bonds, he said.

It is his duty, he said, to ensure that agents pay up, regardless of who goes out of business.

"We're required under the law if people are given the opportunity to be on bond and not be in jail ... then the bondsmen have to do the right thing," he said.

"And we have to make sure that we hold them accountable."

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705

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