Friday, September 14, 2007

Court Upholds Bondsmen's Right to Solicit Business

With phone in hand and dialing finger at the ready, bail bondsman Carl Pruett turned out to be a faster gun than the uniformed folks in reaching people with outstanding arrest warrants.

That got him in trouble not only with the law, but with his fellow bondsmen. Drumming up business by calling alleged criminals before they were picked up put the lives of officers in danger and gave the bad guys a reason to flee. And someone on the lam who is already carrying a bond could cost some other bondsman dearly.

Six years ago, the Harris County Bail Bond Board, which regulates the bond industry, told Pruett to stop calling. Officials said he was breaking a local rule that banned certain solicitations. And they threatened to suspend his license to do business.

Pruett fought back with a lawsuit against the board and Harris County and recently, after a protracted legal fight, a federal appeals court ruled he and fellow bondsman Scott Martin had a First Amendment right to consult public records, then solicit business by phone.

Calling times restrictedThe 5th U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that state-imposed restrictions on "commercial speech" were unconstitutional, but agreed with the state law restricting solicitation calls between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m.

Essentially, Pruett and Martin used public records to troll for people with outstanding warrants, and then called them to offer their services.

Constable offices, the county and other municipalities use those same records to mail thousands of letters every month to people with open warrants for bad checks, unreturned DVD rentals, unresolved traffic violations and other nonviolent criminal cases.

The 5th Circuit ruled that Pruett and Martin had the same rights to contact those people.
"The statute does not prevent attorneys, law enforcement officials or anyone else from alerting someone that he's the subject of an open warrant," the court said. "Harris County cannot give such notice itself and then claim that restricting notice by others is necessary to the safety of its officers and the public and the prevention of flight."

County Attorney Mike Stafford said the county didn't create or enforce the state law, but intervened to prevent bondsmen from "tipping off" alleged criminals. He said protecting officers from possible violence is a legitimate objection and the county will likely appeal the latest decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

David Furlow, who represents Pruett and Martin in the federal lawsuit, hailed the decision as a "vindication of First Amendment rights." But he said perhaps more importantly, the courts action sent a loud message to fellow bondsmen who saw Pruett and Martin as unscrupulous competitors.

"The largest bail bonding companies with large investments in Yellow Pages ads and large existing bases of criminal defendant clients, they wanted to restrict those and keep other bail bondsmen from contacting them," Furlow said.

Rules adopted in 2001Bail bond boards were created to provide local oversight of the bail bond industry. Members of those boards include the county sheriff, judges, court clerks — or their designees — and someone who issues bail bonds.

In 2001, the Harris County bond board adopted local rules to regulate bail-bond solicitation. The state enacted a similar law the same year, and charged the local board with enforcing it.
Both measures prohibit unsolicited contacts by bondsmen who don't have a prior relationship with an individual. They also ban solicitations by phone or in person within 24 hours of an arrest, and between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. Monday through Saturday.

The Professional Bondsmen of Texas went to the Legislature about a state law to help people whose "phone was literally ringing and ringing and ringing all night long," said Tillmin Welch, the group's legislative committee chairman.

Harris County has 76 licensed bail bonding companies.

Pruett, who is also a lawyer, and other bondsmen consulted public records in the Harris County Justice Information Management System, or JIMS, to find the names and addresses of people who are the subjects of arrest warrants. The county waits 48 hours to post information about outstanding warrants to allow officers to serve the alleged offenders, but several bondsmen said that they have colleagues who are accessing the information sooner.

Houston bondsman Glenn Strickland, who represents bondsmen on the bail bond board, said the practice amounted to nothing more than "ambulance chasing."

"There are certain people that will want to push the limits," he said. "Is the competition that fierce where you have to go do that?"

But Welch, who has been an Edinburg bondsman for three decades, said part of the law penalizes industrious businessmen.

"(These bondsmen) were in fact doing nothing more than the sheriff's office and some of the municipal courts were doing — only they were doing it faster."

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