Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bail Bondsmen in North Carolina Face Unique Challenges

Bad boys. Bad boys. Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?

"They'' in this case is the police. And if it so happens that they indeed "come for you'' then it's likely your next destination is the local lockup.

So what next? Well, there are only three ways to make bail: you can pay up in cold hard cash, use the equity in your home as collateral, or call a bail bondsman.

"A bail bondsman is the person who signs the bond and is actually liable for that amount if the person fails to appear,'' bondsman Doug Cozart said. "Bounty hunters are bail enforcement who are hired by the bail bondsman to go out and find that person to bring them back.''

However, in North Carolina bounty hunting is illegal and it falls on the bondsman to enforce bail, which means with the power vested by the Supreme Court case Taylor v. Taintor in 1872, they have the ability to break into and enter a home to get a "skip,'' as they call them.

"When we have people that have failed to appear, we've gone to great lengths to find these people,'' Cozart said. "I've gone all along the Eastern Sea board in pursuit of these people.''

And that isn't a paid vacation. It means they have to find these people where they are, often times putting themselves in danger. So much so that bondsman Deva Lea regularly carries several guns.

"The hardest part is the arrests and apprehensions because you are out of the office and it's no longer just paperwork,'' Cozart said. "You may have to get physical.''

It's a risk they accept when they get into the job.

Amy McCalister knew what she was getting into before getting her bonding license because her father was a bondsman while she was growing up. That didn't make it any better when a skip shot himself in the head and the bullet missed her by about six inches.

Situations like that are why the North Carolina Bail Agents Association holds annual classes on topics such as self defense, skip tracing and use of force.

"The waiting is the worst part,'' Lea said. "You've got to be patient and I still struggle with that.''

Lea said he just wants to find the skips and be done, but many times you have to wait them out and they'll show up eventually.

Cozart tells a story about a man who was reported dead in California, then almost put on "America's Most Wanted'' before he called Cozart from Greensboro. The man told Cozart that he'd been robbed, was flat broke and just turn himself in.

"We were more than willing to accommodate him,'' Cozart said with a smile.

If a person under bond does skip, the court gives the bondsman 150 days to find the person or they have to pay the cost of the bond to the court. Needless to say, the bondsman does everything in his power to bring the people in and avoid paying that bond.

Lea said that once, Cozart and Dexter Shoffner spent three weeks in South Carolina looking for a skip. Bondsman do what they can to avoid such trips because not only do they have to pay for travel expenses, they also lose other business because they can do bonds for new clients.

Cozart said that before he agrees to do a bond, he assesses the risks. He usually tries to get a relative of the person to sign an indemnity agreement, which holds the relative accountable for the bond if the person fails to appear.

"We try to impress upon the defendant that they must appear in court,'' Cozart said. "In some cases, they'll appear because they don't want to put their relatives at risk.''

Cozart said bondsmen save taxpayers millions of dollars compared to other pre-release prison programs. These other programs justify their work through formulas that compare the cost of housing inmates versus being out of jail.

"For instance if the cost per day is $40 and the defendant stays out of jail for 10 days prior to the case being disposed of, they say they save the state $400,'' Cozart said, adding that the savings don't include the cost of operating the program. "If I use that formula and I have about 200 out on bond per day then I save the state $8,000 per day and $2,900,000 per year.''

And his company is small. If 1,000 bondsmen have 200 out, then that is $2,900,000,000.

"That is quite a savings,'' he said. "The most important savings is that we don't cost the taxpayers a dime. The only ones who pay are the people in jail or their friends and relatives.''

Cozart also said that the other programs do not have the structure and discipline to ensure that the person goes to court.

"The other programs don't have the authority of enforcement. They get paid whether the person goes to court or not,'' he said. "We are obligated and that is our initiative to do a better job.''

Currently there are about 1,200 bondsmen in North Carolina charging as much as 15 percent for their services. But with so many to choose from, how does somebody in jail pick?

The Alamance County jail has a list of the bondsmen available, but Cozart said most of their business is referred by word-of-mouth.

McAlister said she has several "regulars,'' which works out well because they keep getting in trouble so she keeps getting paid.

However, because crime doesn't sleep, neither do they. There isn't a 9-to-5 schedule for most bondsmen, which means if they get a call during dinner, a movie or a meeting, they get up and go.

"The hours are the worst, but the best,'' McAlister said. "You don't have to punch a clock and you've got time to do what you want, but if you go to sleep at 3 a.m. and they call at 4, you do what you need to do with an hour of sleep.''

But with so many bondsman there is usually somebody available.

"We get calls all time of the night, but we do not have to go,'' Cozart said. "I have a good working relationship with other bail bondsmen so if I'm not available, I do refer them so they don't have to wait on me.'' Lea said he tries to be at the jail within 20 minutes of a call, even if it is Christmas morning.

Each of the bondsmen said one of the best parts is when they hear about success stories.

"These people are not always the bottom of the barrel,'' Cozart said. "I've met some very, very nice people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In situations like that, it is a good feeling that you can help somebody out of a bad situation.''

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