Bail bondsmen want W.Va. to set industry standards
This report is part of a series examining pretrial release programs, the cash bail system and West Virginia's growing prison and jail overpopulation problems. This story was produced in conjunction with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Chasing down a bail jumper can be a tough job. Will Seay has the scars to prove it.
A few years ago, Seay tracked two absconders to a house in Washington state and kicked through the front door. When the men saw that his leg was stuck, they grabbed it and twisted until it snapped.
"That wasn't a fun trip back," Seay said, rolling up a pant leg to show off a healed gash that spanned the better part of his shin.
Seay, the owner of a Raleigh County bonding agency, said he is one of a minority of West Virginia bail bondsmen who keep proper tabs on the criminally charged people he helps release from jail.
Last week, he and bondsmen Tommy Weatherholtz and Bill Garvin traveled to Charleston to ask lawmakers to consider drafting legislation that would create a unified set of rules to regulate the bonding industry.
Bondsmen, who must track down and sometimes forcefully apprehend clients who skip out on their court dates, are not required to have a state license or any type of training in order to do the job. Often, they don't even need to prove that they have the proper financial backing to post a defendant's bail.
"West Virginia is an open-carry state," Weatherholtz, of Jefferson County, told the Sunday Gazette-Mail. "So now, all of a sudden, you got a badge, handcuffs and a gun in someone's hand because Johnny Boy owns a farm down the road."
In September, legislative auditors released a report that found West Virginia is one of just a handful of states that do not have statutory rules to regulate the bail bonding industry.
Twenty of West Virginia's 55 counties do not have any rules that govern bondsmen at all, which has opened the state to a "higher risk of corruption and unscrupulous treatment by bail bond agents on those seeking bail," the report found.
"I think most of us have no basic training to become a bondsman," Garvin said. "We learn through experience. . . . It's scary sometimes."
In general, whenever a person gets arrested, a magistrate sets a cash amount that he will have to pay in order to get out of jail. If the defendant doesn't have the money, he can pay a bondsman a small percentage of the bail as a fee. In exchange, the bondsman pledges the full amount to the court as collateral and takes the responsibility for making sure his client shows up for his hearings.
If the client flees to another county or state, then a judge has the option to order prosecutors to seize the full amount of the bail or give the bondsman a chance to locate the absconder. If the bondsman fails, then the bail is up for grabs.
In West Virginia, the power to regulate bondsmen falls to circuit court judges who, on some occasions, set rules that are so harsh that bonding agencies have difficulty establishing themselves in certain counties.
Kanawha County, for instance, has been without a bail-bonding agency for more than a decade, the report found.
In 1998, Kanawha's circuit court judges signed an administrative order that allowed criminal defendants to post 10 percent of their bail amount to the court system as a deposit, as opposed to a fee.
The judges also forced the bonding companies to merge into a tightly monitored partnership and appoint a single, court-approved agent to post all of the county's bail bonds, the proceeds of which would be shared among the partners. The bondsmen themselves were actually banned from doing business in the courthouse.
Kanawha County Judge Charles E. King, who was one of the seven circuit judges who signed the order that year, said that the new rules were necessary because the bondsmen were getting out of control.
Some, he said, were taking advantage of clients by charging them outrageous percentages. Others were signing off on bonds that they couldn't back up and neglecting to track down defendants who skipped out on court dates.
Two years before the judges drafted the order, the Gazette-Mail reported that prosecutors could have pursued nearly $4 million worth of bail bond forfeitures in the previous four years. Instead, they seized about $7,000.
"I don't favor it," King said of the bonding industry in general. "I've seen too many headaches and problems with it in the past. That's just a general observation about it."
Kanawha County Chief Public Defender George Castelle said the system works much better without bondsmen. A portion of a defendant's 10 percent deposit to the court, for instance, goes toward court fees or restitution that they would have to pay when the charges are resolved anyway.
"Most defendants struggle to pay [bail] at all," Castelle said. "When they post money through a bondsman, they're even more destitute."
Other county officials, however, want to see bondsmen back in Kanawha, as long as they're properly regulated.
Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants said current bonding rules place the burden of tracking bail jumpers on the already-overworked police agencies.
"Ideally, I'd have an entity with a financial interest to go out and immediately find these defendants," Plants said. "I think it would allow law enforcement to better allocate their resources and we could hold criminals more accountable in a more efficient way."
Magistrate Tim Halloran pointed out that the people who post bail on behalf of defendants today don't exactly have deep pockets.
"Often, we see a family member bring in a grandmother or grandfather. These folks are not really aware of what they're doing," he said. "You can post your property and get your family member out of jail, now your house has a $10,000 lien on it."
Halloran said the state could eliminate many bail bonding issues if lawmakers required bonding agencies to be insured by large commercial surety companies.
"As long as they dot all the 'I's' and cross all the 'T's'," Halloran said, "we ought to explore any avenue we can to get people out of jail and eliminate jail costs and eliminate innocent people from getting kind of hoodwinked from putting their property up."
Reach Zac Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5189.