By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
One question that has come up at several of the current series of political debates in Dade County’s high-profile sheriff’s race is the matter of how much money is owed the county by bail bond companies serving the justice system. The Sentinel accordingly investigated and added up $313,913.50 in liens against three bond companies for unpaid bonds going back to 2005.
Gary’s Bail Bonds was the biggest debtor at $216,868.90, of which $100,137.50 was for one bond in February 2011. The other liens were for smaller amounts, typically from $1,000-$7,000 for individual bonds. The bad bonds range in date from 2006 to this year.
An associated company, Brock Bonding, owed $50,405 for debts dating from February 2005 to March 2007.
A third company, Dade Bale Bonds, had liens dated from 2007 to 2012 totaling $46,639.60.
Additionally, Dave’s Bonding, a company no longer in business, had liens on the books for perhaps another $50,000, all going back to 2005; but because of duplicate records it was difficult to ascertain which had been released and arrive at a total.
The district attorney’s office was kind enough to explain the bail bonding process:
When a person is arrested and charged with a crime, a judge may set bail, allowing the person to put up a certain amount of money, which he agrees to forfeit if he doesn’t show back up for trial. This is not necessarily in cash: If bail is set at $5,000, for example, and a person owns a house, he can pledge it as security; or if he doesn’t own one, his family might bail him by pledging theirs.
Or, as is the case here, the person can contract with a bonding company like Gary’s or Dade Bonding. These companies may charge the person 10 percent of the bond – $500 on our $5,000 bond, for example – to guarantee the county that if the person skips town, the county will still get its 5K.
If the trial date comes and the person doesn’t appear, the bonding company has 120 to 150 days to bring him back, account for him or pay up. The DA’s office picks a convenient court date during that window and alerts the company to make good on its promise on or before then.
The bonding company may find the person and bring him back – it has the right to have him picked up – or it may come before the judge and explain the person is in jail somewhere else. Or if, say, the person has skipped the country and escaped somewhere he’ll never be found, the company may even renegotiate the bond with the court and pay only some part of it.
But if the bond company does none of the above, the judge will issue a “judgment absolute.” This goes to the Dade Superior Court Clerk’s office, and a lien, or FIFA (writ of fieri facias), is recorded. This is what has happened here, explained the DA’s office: Essentially, the bonding companies are being allowed to charge their fees for bonds but are not being held accountable for fulfilling them.
If an individual pledges property as bail for a family member, and the person disappears, the individual loses his property; but these bonding companies forfeit nothing and in fact continue to make new bonds.
The sheriff has the right to satisfy these FIFAs by dipping into an escrow account set up by the bonding companies to guarantee, as it were, their guarantees. This is what Dade County is waiting for right now.
“This time of year, you’re trying to find all the revenue you can,” said Dade County Executive and Commission Chairman Ted Rumley. Tax revenues come in toward the end of the year, he explained, making this the county’s dryest season, and he typically issues a call to all the departments to collect anything they can in back receivables. This year, the DA’s office in response alerted him of the bad bonds.
But what are the chances for collecting? Rumley said the amount held in escrow for both Dade and Gary’s is less than $100,000, and he said he understood in any case there was a statute of limitations applicable to bail bonds, so that after a certain amount of time counties lose the right to make companies pay up.
And the DA’s office checked into that large $100,000 bond owed by Gary’s from last February: Though the bond is still payable unless or until it is renegotiated by the company, the bonded individual in that case is in fact back listed as being back in jail elsewhere.
Rumley said he hopes to hear from Sheriff Patrick Cannon soon on this matter. Cannon declined to speak with the Sentinel about it.