First of three parts
When police in 2003 busted a Haltom City man accused of dealing cocaine, a judge set his bond at $100,000. An attorney posted the bond, taking on the risk of ensuring that the suspect would show up in court.
But he jumped bail and years after the drug bust is nowhere to be found.
The attorney, though, didn't pay the $100,000. He hasn't yet paid a penny. Instead, the bond forfeiture went into a kind of legal thicket, eliminating a big incentive for bond agents to track the suspect down.
A Star-Telegram examination found that in the past three years, hundreds of bond forfeitures, for some of the worst criminal offenses, have been delayed, dismissed or settled for a fraction of the amount. While the Tarrant County district attorney's office gave tacit approval in some of the cases, all of them depended on the forbearance of judges who spend little time on forfeitures.
That's a small number compared with the tens of thousands of bail bonds written for criminal suspects each year, District Attorney Joe Shannon said. "When you consider how many bonds are being made, the vast, vast majority of them comply, the vast majority of them show up, the vast majority of them deal with the judicial system as it comes along," he said.
But critics question the effectiveness of the county's criminal justice system when forfeitures amounting to millions of dollars go uncollected.
"If the bondsman never has to pay a penalty, then what is the point of having bail bonds?" said Mark Holtschneider, executive vice president and general counsel for Lexington National, a Maryland-based bail bond surety company. "The forfeiture must be enforced."
Harris County Assistant District Attorney Kathy Braddock said: "If there are no consequences, you might as well open the doors and let everybody get out of jail free. That's basically what you are doing if you don't have a forceful forfeiture policy."
The Star-Telegram examination of absconder cases -- felony cases where defendants have been on the loose for 270 days or more -- found that a number of bond agents get off the hook for paying the full amount of a forfeited bond, even though state law says they shall pay it.
If the cases drag out longer, years even, and the suspect is eventually found by some law enforcement agency somewhere, a bond agent may be ordered to pay only court costs and interest. On one $50,000 bond, forfeited for 549 days, payment was $4,145.01 in court costs and interest, court records show. Tarrant County got nothing on the principal.
So instead of going to the expense of trying to bring in people accused of drug dealing, robbery, assault, it can pay for the bond agent to play a waiting game.
Some of Tarrant's felony defendants have been missing 300 days, 400 days, 650 days, 1,800 days, the examination of more than 500 felony bond forfeiture cases showed. The county has not collected the full bond amount in the majority of cases.
Mark Scott, a Fort Worth attorney who writes bonds, has dozens of cases whose bonds have been forfeited because the suspect has been missing more than 270 days, according to county records. In recent years, he has written more than $663,495 in bail bonds that were forfeited, but he has been discharged from his obligation with payments of $67,393, records show.
He continues to write bail bonds. If a suspect takes a hike, Scott doesn't hire a bounty hunter.
He postpones payments on the premise that the fugitives will eventually turn up.
"I don't cut deals," Scott said. "I gamble that they get picked up or show back up."
But he also said, "Let me assure you that I pay more money to [the district attorney]. I've got to be in the top three, and I get no slack."
Working the system
Seasoned players know how to work the system.
Bail bond amounts are set by Texas courts to ensure that suspects don't skip out on justice and to reduce the jail population and expense. If the suspect can't pay cash, he or she can pay a percentage of the bond -- usually 15 to 20 percent -- to a bond agent, or surety, who will guarantee the bond amount so the suspect can leave jail.
In Tarrant, a bail bond is forfeited when a judge declares that a defendant didn't appear in court. That puts the bond agent on notice, and the district attorney's office files a lawsuit on behalf of the state.
The clock starts running then.
The sooner the bond agent will settle, before 270 days, the less the agent may have to pay.
The district attorney's office uses a court-approved settlement schedule, established with input from local bail bondsmen and attorneys, to show bond agents the expected amount.
For example, on a felony bond, pay within 30 days and 30 percent of the bond amount, plus court costs and interest, is due. From 31 to 60 days, it's 40 percent.
But the district attorney's office said that for cases under 270 days, the schedule is only a guide, a set of talking points if you want to kick off negotiations. Bond agents may be able to settle for less.
After 270 days for felony bonds, the schedule says the state will go after the full amount, with no grace period, time extensions or exceptions.
That's what state law requires, and Shannon said that's what his office pursues.
Yet records show that bail agents have gone well beyond 270 days without paying the full bail amount. They can do that because of a legal loophole that allows them to get by with just court costs and various fees, if the defendant is rearrested somewhere by someone someday.
The goal, for some, then is to stall, particularly on the big bonds. That can be done through legal maneuvers, such as asking for reset hearings and passes.
For example, if an attorney-bondsman has another case to be heard in another court that conflicts with the bond forfeiture hearing, it takes precedence over the bond forfeiture. Some find that, all of a sudden, their days are booked with other legal matters, and the forfeiture gets left for a future day, Shannon said.
He also said some attorneys who write bonds go into hiding, much like their clients. "Some of these lawyers, pretty frankly, are pretty hard to catch up," he said. "They're somewhat slippery on purpose."
The longer they wait, the more chances they have that their client will be caught and they will duck the full bail amount.
"You will see the ones that make the big, big bonds, they don't use the settlement schedule," said Assistant District Attorney Ashley Fourt, who handles forfeitures for the office. "They are always going to roll the dice.
"Those are the cases you're going to see one, two, three, four [court] settings before it's disposed, and that's just because there's a big bond and there's no incentive to settle those."
Legal tactics aren't the only reason cases can go well beyond 270 days.
Once a forfeiture case is set for a hearing, Fourt said, she gives all bond agents an automatic first pass, if they ask. That's the office's policy, she explained.
"At the time the case gets set for the first hearing, the case is already at 100 percent per our settlement policy, and passing the case one time does not hurt the state's case," she wrote in an e-mail.
If the defendant isn't rearrested, a new hearing is set.
But the case might not come up again until, say, 400 days.
"It's not like we're wasting all of this time," Fourt said. "That's procedurally, you have to work with the court's docket ... so a setting takes a little bit of time."
At that point, a defense attorney may ask the judge for a pass, and the judge grants it.
That tacks 30 to 60 days onto that case. Now it may be closer to 460 days.
Case hearings are reset by the coordinators of each of the courts, not the DA's office, so the district attorney can't speed it up. As the courts have slashed the felony dockets they hear, it becomes less likely for pressure to bear down on the bail agents.
"We are at the mercy of the court's schedule and docket," First Assistant District Attorney Marvin Collins said. "Each one of the 20 criminal judges controls his or her docket.
"We can't magically go out and do something on our own," Collins said. "We have to have the court set the case."
Low collection rate
In the past three years, as a consequence of legal machinations or mishaps such as losing track of cases, the county has collected less than $1 million on about $5 million in forfeited bail bonds for felony cases where defendants were missing for 270 days or more, records show.
Bondsman David Wells' bill was zero in a 2008 case involving two Arlington brothers accused of manufacturing a controlled substance. The men have never been found. The words "active warrant" are emblazoned in bold red letters in a court file that is also marked "bail exonerated."
The judge in the case, Mollee Westfall, said she had to release Wells from paying the two $100,000 bonds because a paperwork error by the county bail bond desk made the bonds invalid.
Money also slips out of the county's grasp when bond agents don't pay judgments. Tarrant has more than $600,000 in uncollected judgments in the past three years, records show.
The district attorney's office says it is up to the courts to enforce a judgment. Judges do that by issuing orders; then the district attorney's office notifies the bond agent of the debt. The office can also file what amounts to a lien to try to eventually recover the money, but it doesn't act like a collection agency.
"A judgment is nothing more than a piece of paper that says you owe me," Shannon said. "Unless you can turn it to coin of the realm, it doesn't do any good."
However, a county computer will lock out Tarrant agents who don't pay, so they can't write additional bonds.
And the county bail bond board can suspend the agent's ability to write bonds.
If the bondsman gets suspended twice in 12 months, or for 30 straight days, the board can take disciplinary action, including revoking his ability to write bonds.
But that can take years, and only a few agents have been booted. The bond board doesn't keep track of how many, but none in the past year were revoked for failure to pay.
Attorney Deatria Norfleet wrote more than $300,000 in bonds in 2009 and 2010 for defendants who never showed up in court, records show.
The computer shut her off, and the bail bond board revoked her bond-writing privileges.
She didn't return repeated phone calls.
Finally, the county can lose out if it seizes worthless collateral from bond agents who don't pay judgments.
To be qualified to write bonds, agents in Tarrant County are required to submit a list of collateral, which can be cash, certificates of deposit or real estate, to show that they have the financial wherewithal to back bonds.
If the county seizes real estate, though, it must accept it at the value set by a qualified outside appraiser selected by the bondsman when the collateral list was submitted.
But the county has found that much of it -- abandoned houses, weed-choked lots -- can't be sold.
"Junk," Fourt said.
No one seems to know how much the county has lost through such collateral. It doesn't keep track.
Forfeitures for bail bond absonders
|Cases||Bond amount||Total paid||Average forfeiture days|
Attorney with the most forfeiture cases: Mark Scott (79)
Bondsman with the most forfeiture cases: Eddy Schuder (40)
For attorneys, a judgment was made for the full bond amount in 26 of the 173 cases.
For bondsmen, a judgment was made for the full bond amount in 70 of the 337 cases.
* For felony cases 270 days or older, 2009-11
Source: Tarrant County district clerk
Felony bond judgments
|Fiscal year||Judgment||Interest||Court costs||Total|
* Drop in collections reflects reduction in the number of felony cases filed.
Source: Tarrant County district clerk