The Bail Bonds Industry in Baltimore Is Huge, Complicated, and Largely Unregulated
Joslyn Hayes is tired. She has walked to the Central Booking and Intake Center from Erdman Avenue and Belair Road, she says, and it's hot out. Down the stairs at the Eager Street entrance with $100 in her pocket, she looks through the thick glass into a small room.
"They gave him 31 days," she tells court commissioner Delores Martin. "We've been together for 29 years. I've got to get my baby out."
She passes a stack of bills through a slot in the window, along with the paperwork necessary to secure the release, on $100 cash bond, of one Jack Spain, who was incarcerated on charges of second-degree assault and disorderly conduct that were eventually dropped. The money, according to court records, is bail for an outstanding bench warrant for failure to appear in a paternity case against him that has been going on since 1979. Martin takes the papers, and begins to check each bill with a counterfeit detecting pen. She finds a problem--a $5 bill doesn't check out. Martin compares it to a bogus $10 stapled to the bulletin board behind her; the pen's mark matches closely. She breaks the bad news to Hayes: She has $95 on a $100 bail. Hayes says she doesn't have any more money--she must have picked up the bill in change somewhere. Martin hands the bills back through the slot, and Hayes leaves the window and heads back outside.
"She might get another one," Martin says, "and come back."
If she does, Hayes' $100 will be a minute fraction of the bail money that changes hands here and across the city and state each day. Statistics are not kept in any one place, but over the course of one weekend--June 13 through the 15--two of the city's top bail companies will write almost $3 million worth of bonds for 130 defendants with charges ranging from drug possession to armed robbery, in addition to the many small out-of-pocket bails like the one Hayes is trying to pay. Bondsmen using the North Point Boulevard address and insurance companies associated with Milton Tillman Jr. and Milton Tillman III will account for more than half of that; Lexington National Insurance, based on Lexington Avenue, will make up the rest. At the bondsman's standard 10 percent commission, that's about $300,000 in gross revenues in three days. According to the court computer records for that weekend, bondsmen relying on Tillman's sureties to back their bonds wrote almost twice as many bonds as Lexington, and did far more business inside Baltimore City.
The American bail system grew out of English law, and began with the first colonists to hit the shore. The idea was simple, if fraught with the possibility for corruption--medieval sheriffs allowed the release of a defendant before trial, and made sure they would show up by accepting some collateral. The first bail reform movement, according to a history of bail written by Gerald P. Monks, came in 1275 when it was discovered that sheriffs were exploiting their discretion for their own gain. According to a recent New York Times article, however, the United States and the Philippines are the only countries to have developed a commercial bail bonds system to post money when a defendant cannot pay up, a practice outlawed in many other countries, including England and Canada.
The bail bonds industry, according to Doug Colbert, is "an incredibly powerful, influential, and profitable industry." Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland, estimates that bail bondsmen statewide make between $100 and $150 million each year. It's a system that Colbert would like to see reformed--with a supervised release program for nonviolent and minor offenders taking the place of the current system, where it all comes down to cash and who can pay it.
"There are better ways of insuring that someone returns to court," he says, "than insisting that they pay a non-refundable 10 percent fee to a bail bondsman."
The 10 percent is standard. If a bail is set--for example, at $100,000--the defendant's friends, family, or anyone who would like to see them out contracts with a bondsman, licensed as an insurance agent with the state. The bondsman, backed by an insurance company, gets 10 percent of that--in this case $10,000--from his customer in exchange for insuring the defendant's appearance in court at the appointed time. The bondsman splits the fee with the insurance company, or surety (usually 60/40, Colbert says, with the surety getting the lion's share). The court receives a certificate guaranteeing that if the defendant doesn't show up, it will get the $100,000.
Bail provides an important function in our current justice system, allowing many of those arrested to avoid spending the months before their case is resolved in jail (they are, after all, innocent until proven guilty). It also keeps our overcrowded jails from being unbearably overcrowded. But it is a complicated system, largely unregulated at the upper levels and full of hundreds of difficult decisions made every day at the level where cash equals freedom.
Martin is supervising the four to midnight shift at Central Booking. She sits inside a small room with thick glass on three sides. The floor of the room is white with blue flecks, a pattern that is reversed on the countertop that runs along two sides of the room. The beige of the walls is offset by the seafoam green metal frames that hold the heavy glass in place. Overall, the effect is one of being inside an aquarium, looking out.
The desk is clean--that's one of the things Martin says she likes about this job. There's a lot of paperwork, but it doesn't carry over from day to day. By the end of the night, any bails paid will be locked in the corner safe, all paperwork will be filled out in triplicate and filed: one copy for the court, one for the commissioners, and one for the person on the other side of the glass. The paperwork has to be in order.
A woman who showed up earlier to bail out Curtis Williams, who has been a guest of Central Booking since the night before thanks to a charge of possession of a controlled dangerous substance, is waiting in the lobby while someone checks on a discrepancy between the two computer systems Martin uses--one from the jail, one from the court system. It's not clear whether his bail is $1,000 cash or 10 percent of that. It could take hours, but Martin doesn't want to tell her that. She sends the woman out to wait in the lobby.
The commissioners know that the person outside the aquarium is, pretty much by definition, having a rough time when they come to retrieve their loved ones from jail. There's no need to make it worse, so Martin says she tries to take it easy on them--the defendants and the people who show up to retrieve them.
"It's not a pleasant place to come, you know?" she says. At the same time, she adds, "a lot of times, they don't understand that it's not personal. We're not trying to give anybody ransom or anything like that."
Tonight, Martin is one of two commissioners taking money and handling paperwork at the bail window. Seven other commissioners are in the back, setting bails for people who have recently been admitted to the jail. Martin estimates that it takes an average of 10-15 hours between the time a person is arrested until he or she is seen by a commissioner. For inmates at Central, this is likely the first time since their arrest that someone in power will actually listen to their side of the story.
Further down the hall, behind another, similar window, sits Eric Gooden. Tonight, June 17, he's wearing a neatly pressed light-blue guayabera as he sits at a desk cluttered with papers and junk food to fortify him against the steady stream of interviews. Gooden's job is to set the bail amount that someone may be paying to Martin within hours.
After making sure the man in front of him, Anthony Foster, has the papers that charge him with second-degree assault, Gooden informs him of those charges and the maximum penalties he may face through a gooseneck microphone on the desk. He asks some questions, the beginnings of a sparse biography that will follow Foster through his stay here--when he was born and where, his address, how long he has been at that address and who he lives with, whether he is employed and how long he has worked there. Gooden enters all the information into a computer.
Gooden shuts off the microphone and runs Foster's state ID number through the computer to check for prior arrests and convictions. The computer shows that at the time of his arrest, Foster has two bails already--$25,000 posted last April to show up in July for trial on charges of drug manufacturing or distribution and $50,000 for allegedly violating his parole on drug charges from February, for which he received a two-year sentence, all of it suspended.
Restrictions apply to some charges--being a suspected drug kingpin, for example, or allegedly procuring arson while out on bail--that prevent the court commissioners from setting a bail. In those cases, the defendant is held until they can see a judge, or until trial. In Foster's case, there are no restrictions, which leaves the field wide open. Gooden puts his head down over the charging document, taking a handful of potato chips as he reads.
"With these assault cases it's hard," he says. "You don't want to let someone go if they're going to hurt someone else." Most of what he needs, he says, is within the "four corners"--the boundaries of the page in front of him. "This is not a light task," he says. "You basically have someone's life in your hands."
In this case, something that happens outside the four corners complicates the decision. When Foster first came in, Gooden says, he asked who had sworn out the charges against him. Gooden told him it was his girlfriend. Foster says the couple is still together, living with his grandmother, and she swore to him she wouldn't file charges about a fight they had. Then, according to Gooden, he says this: "I'm going to kill that bitch."
$25,000 bail. No contact with the alleged victim, stay away from her listed address.
Next: Jerome Davis, driving on a suspended license. This one's easy: The judge has set a bail already for a failure to appear in court. No one messes with a judge's bail. It stands--$100 cash or check.
Next: William Rynerzarski, burglary. His record shows some failures to appear, but not since 1999. Gooden reads the charging document. Rynerzarski is accused of breaking into his aunt's house and taking a five-gallon jug with the money his cousin was saving for a vacation. $50,000, no contact with the victim, stay away from that address.
Next: Davon Johnson, trespassing. Or Quamontge Johnson, failure to appear on a charge of illegal gaming. Or maybe both. Or perhaps, as he claims, he is a 15-year-old named Justin who has no idea why he's here. The cops just put the cuffs on him, he says, somewhere on Cold Spring-- a case of mistaken identity. It's a common enough story. Gooden says he hears it a lot, but something makes him curious, maybe the way the young man hangs his head, his voice dropping off, when he asks "I can't go home today?"
Gooden sends him out of the room and calls for the guard. "What I'll do," he says, "is research this."
The guard comes to the window and tells Gooden that yes, Johnson was fingerprinted when he came in, and yes, the fingerprints matched Davon, aka Quamontge Johnson.
After Johnson, or whatever his name is, returns, Gooden says to him "My question for you is, why go through all that?" A little later in the interview, Johnson holds up the charging documents, pointing: "They locked me up for this already."
Gooden's tone is a little sharper: "I thought you said it wasn't you."
With the microphone off, Gooden says, "You want to give people the benefit of the doubt. Then you just find out you're being lied to."
The gaming bail is already set by a judge anyway: $2,500. Gooden tacks on $2,500 for the trespassing charge, with an order not to go back there. It's never personal, Gooden says. "These bails aren't to be used as a punishment. It's to be sure they appear in court."
The accused's first chance at a court appearance, should they fail to make bail initially, will be at a bail review hearing. Because of the volume of arrests, some are held over closed-circuit television from the court house at Wabash Avenue, but most take place in a second-floor court room at Central Booking. Judges rotate, and it's a draining assignment. On June 16, it was District Court Judge Hallee Weinstein's turn, and she heard around 100 cases over the course of a day.
In a criminal trial, the judge or jury has the benefit of a considerable amount of information--testimony from witnesses, documents, the arguments of defense and prosecuting attorneys. At the court commissioner level, there are just the bare bones: The police say you did this, you say you did that. The bail review hearing lies somewhere in between. The judge hears from a prosecutor, and a member of the court's pre-trial services division, who has likely interviewed the defendant and made some attempt to verify the information they are given. A public defender is available to the accused, who may also retain the services of a private attorney--today, a number of private attorneys wait in the courtroom for various defendants. State Rep. Jill Carter (D-41st District) is here to represent a young man accused of illegally possessing a firearm, and fellow defense attorneys Stanley Needleman and Stephen Prevas round out the first bench of the court room as groups of men, along with a few women, are led to their seats in handcuffs by guards.
Judge Keith Mathews, who oversees the court commissioners, says the commissioners have the same discretion as judges in setting conditions on bail. The commissioners, however, are reluctant to use it, sticking instead to a monetary amount, or holding a person without bail. Judges are more likely to set conditions for the bail to be acceptable, for instance, in cash only, or, as Weinstein does repeatedly today, a condition that a property bond cannot be accepted.
If the bail bonds industry as a whole is largely unregulated, property bonds are "the wild west," according to Todd Cioni of the Maryland Insurance Administration. "All we hear is outside stories from the courts," he says, adding, "We have no idea how many property bondsmen there are."
Instead of a cash percentage of the bail or the standard bail bondsman's agreement with some dollar amount in the balance, real estate is posted as collateral for a property bond, usually at least twice the value of the bail amount. Currently, there is no way for commissioners to check whether a property has other liens against it, or even if it is already posted as bail in another case (which would render the second bail effectively invalid). Mathews says a computer system is in the works that would prevent that kind of fraud, although properties are almost never seized, if at all, meaning there are few consequences when someone who is bailed out with property fails to show up for trial.
A bill to change that was introduced during the 2008 legislative session at the Maryland Insurance Administration's request. A bail bonds task force consisting of judges, lawyers, and bondsmen was formed in 2003 to study the industry and make recommendations to change the current laws. In December 2007, the group released its report, including a set of seven recommendations; the first thing on the list was the licensure of property bondsmen. According to the report, statewide regulations would reduce the potential for fraud.
The University of Maryland's Doug Colbert believes that the task force aimed low. "They decided to focus on the issue of property bonds rather than creating a more just and more fair pretrial release system," he says. "The political reality is that bail bondsmen exert an enormous amount of power in Annapolis." A search of political donations by bail companies reveals at least $120,000 in contributions over the past 10 years; the largest individual recipients have been former governor Robert Ehrlich (R) and former Anne Arundel County sheriff/Democratic candidate for Anne Arundel county executive George F. Johnson IV.
A bill to implement the task force's recommendations was introduced in the state House of Representatives, but received an unfavorable report from the House Judiciary and Economic Matters committee. The Maryland Senate has taken no action.
According to a fiscal report on the bill, there are 1,055 bondsmen in the state, 146 of whom operate as property bondsmen, although in a dissenting report Lexington's Brian Frank, who was also a task force member, argues that there are far fewer--only 25 property bondsmen statewide. Frank, in his report, recommends against licensing property bondsmen on the grounds that the practice will be legitimized, and spread beyond the districts where it currently flourishes--Baltimore City and Prince George's County.
In October 2007, Milton Tillman, Jr., Milton Tillman III, and Bernard Dixon were found not guilty in a rare criminal case related to the property bonds industry that actually went to trial. The three men, through Tillman-owned 4 Aces Bail Bonds, were accused of putting the same properties up for multiple bails. Tillman Jr., according to his lawyers in the trial, runs the largest bail bonds business in Baltimore; he also has a criminal record that includes convictions for tax evasion and attempted bribery. In the 2002 federal trial of three men who were found guilty of a drug conspiracy that involved shooting Tillman III after a drug deal gone wrong, U.S. Attorney Jonathan Luna called Tillman Jr. a violent drug dealer, and a 2000 Drug Enforcement Administration memo introduced in that case said that the agency's "investigation into the Tillman family has revealed that the family has been active for the past 20 years in the Baltimore, East-side based, heroin traffic" ("Grave Accusations," Mobtown Beat, April 23). Neither the Tillmans nor Dixon could be reached for comment.
In the 2007 property-bond case, defense lawyers argued that the cases made up a tiny fraction of the bonds written by 4 Aces, and put them down to paperwork errors. During the trial, state's witness Leo Coleman testified that he had received money in exchange for posting his house for the bail of a man he didn't know. Attorneys for 4 Aces made the argument that the company was being unfairly prosecuted, and attempted to have Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth Ritter removed from the case for her participation in the Bail Bonds Task Force and association with Brian Frank, whom 4 Aces' lawyers portrayed as a rival intent on stopping Tillman's companies.
The case drew attention to property bonds among judges--enough that some, like Weinstein, specify that property bonds are not to be accepted. Mathews, the judge who oversees the operations of Baltimore City District Courts, offers another explanation for judge's reluctance to accept property bonds--real estate may wind up encumbered with liens from the court, but properties are rarely if ever seized, he says. With corporate bondsmen taking responsibility, someone is on the hook if a defendant fails to appear. Mathews says the courts' new computer system will be able to guard against the kind of fraud alleged in the Tillman case.
Real estate is at the back of more than just property bonds. The Tillmans own more than $10 million worth of real estate in and around Baltimore, according to real estate records, and many of those holdings are pledged as collateral to their out-of-state insurance companies, allowing the Tillmans to write bonds in the insurance companies' names. Financial Casualty and Surety, for example, a Texas company, holds an interest in 28 properties in East Baltimore.
Yet even the regulated surety bondsmen get by with little oversight. Most of the cases Cioni's office makes come from consumer complaints or from bond companies reporting wrongdoing by rivals rather than routine investigations. There is a broad standard, he says, for licensing surety agents--they have to be "trustworthy and competent." The administration doesn't distinguish between bail bondsmen and other forms of insurance--life, car, or homeowner.
One tactic used by agents to outdo their competitors, Cioni says, is to accept less than the standard 10 percent fee up front. In some cases, Cioni believes, the agreement to pay the rest will be, by common understanding, ignored. As long as the agent makes a good faith effort to collect--a few dunning letters--the remainder of the 10 percent goes unpaid. It's a difficult tactic to regulate, according to Cioni--it takes a consumer complaint, and the only reward for the bond customer is they get to pay the full 10 percent. Cioni's office gets a couple of calls a year like that--bond customers who say they were told they didn't have to pay and are now receiving letters to pay up--but they usually evaporate once the customer figures out the score.
In Weinstein's courtroom, she advises each group of their right to an attorney as they come in. As each defendant's name is called, they stand, and a group at the front of the room consisting of a representative from pre-trial service, a public defender, and Assistant State's Attorney David Chiu present the arguments and bail recommendations. In a couple of cases, a private attorney takes the place of the public defender. Stanley Needleman, a slightly built man with hair that jets up and back like the quills of a porcupine, is here to represent Anton Hopkins.
Hopkins is charged with several counts of possession of drugs with intent to distribute. His bail has been set by a court commissioner at $500,000. Chiu, the assistant state's attorney, would like his bail revoked. Needleman argues every point of the accusations. It wasn't ecstasy, it was diabetes medicine, he begins. Weinstein tells him the court is more concerned with the gallon-sized bag of heroin. "Suspected heroin," Needleman reminds the court--there was no test, he says. He fails to sway the judge. Hopkins is held without bail. Weinstein uses the same phrase, varying slightly, over and over during the course of the day to explain her reasons for setting high bail or none at all--"because of the link between the drug trade and violent crime in the city."
The defendants come in, stand for a while, sit back down, and are led out of the room. After a while they begin to run together. Jorge Rives, disorderly conduct, tells the court through a Spanish interpreter that he has a 3-year-old son who needs him. Bail is set at $10,000 and Weinstein adds "you may not go into that church."
Herbert Davis, assault with a dangerous weapon. No convictions in this state. $50,000 bail, no contact with the alleged victim.
It's around 3:30 when the cases wind down to the last--Anthony Whitaker, driving under the influence, $15,000 bail.
Back on the other side of the facility, Commissioner Delores Martin is having a slow night. The Xerox machine is acting up, and copies of checks and drivers licenses from the people outside the aquarium keep coming out crumpled.
A woman in dark glasses comes into the lobby asking for Mario. No knows where he is, so she says she's going for ice cream. She'll be back in a bit. As soon as she leaves, Mario Rawlings, a bail bondsman who writes bails for Tillman-owned companies, comes out of the back room looking for her. Eventually they make it, together, to the window in front of Martin. The woman, whose name is Meatria Williams, has her ice cream in hand.
They're here to bail out Johnnie Davis, in for charges of assault in the first and second degree, reckless endangerment, and intent to injure with a dangerous and deadly weapon--the dangerous and deadly weapon listed in the charges is a pillow.
His bail is high: $175,000. Just a few weeks before, Davis pleaded guilty to possession of drugs with intent to distribute and received three months probation. According to a 2006 police report in that case, officers were standing in the hallway of an apartment building trying to figure out "where the odor of marijuana was coming from," when Davis and another man emerged from an apartment carrying black trash bags. According to the report, "Johnny yelled `Oh shit! and shut and locked the front door behind him." Police recovered more than 60 pounds of marijuana.
The judge in the assault case against Davis has made two conditions on the bail: No property may be accepted, and the first 10 percent must be in cash. Rawlings leaves to get his "powers"--the certificate from Safety National Casualty Corporation, a Missouri insurance company, that gives him the power to write a bail in the case. Williams goes with him, and as Martin and another commissioner examine the paperwork, the other commissioner makes a joke: "You mean there's somebody standing on Eager Street with $17,500 cash right now? I'm going on my lunch break."
In the time it takes Williams and Rawlings to return, Martin has filled out most of the paperwork on the form the Internal Revenue Service requires when bails are over $10,000. Williams, it turns out, has a cashier's check for $17,000, and $500 in bills.
Williams says later that she knows Davis as a friend and an ex-employee of Transitioning Lives, Inc., the non-profit she runs in East Baltimore that helps rehabilitate ex-offenders. Davis, she says, was just an employee, not a client.
"He was an excellent employee of ours," she says. "He kind of got caught up in an unfortunate situation with a female. We know him very well, and I just felt I should've been a reference."
Until recently, Transitioning Lives operated out of a Belnord Street rowhouse owned by Milton Tillman III. In May, the non-profit purchased another Tillman property on Biddle Street. Williams says she knows Tillman's New Trend Development as a property company, and was unaware of a bail-bonds connection.
"We went to New Trend," she recalls. "They were the only ones who would give us a chance. . . . It wasn't because of a personal connection or anything like that."
Her organization has received grants from the city and from the Abell Foundation, among others, and in 2007 it was part of an award to the city from the U.S. Department of Labor honoring them as "Champions of Compassion."
Williams contends the $17,500 bail "wasn't tough to get together." In an initial phone conversation, she says she paid most of it, with the help of "a couple" of Davis' family members. "I also was assured," she says, "that we would get the money back. I put up most of it myself."
She subsequently amends that: Nine people contributed to freeing Davis. She won't specify how much she contributed, but says it was all above board. She worries that an association with the bail bonds industry could jeopardize the work she does with her non-profit, which, she says, has helped over 700 individuals in the past four years.
Outside the aquarium, things are complicated, but at the Court Commissioner's work station on Eager Street, it's pretty simple. Rawlings' powers are in order, as are the cashier's check and IRS forms. The pair leaves with the paperwork to free Johnnie Davis.
About an hour after she left with the counterfeit $5 bill, Joslyn Hayes returns, this time with a 10 substituting for two fives. The paperwork is filled out in triplicate using carbon paper from a stack on the counter--a yellow receipt goes to accounting, the pink copy stays with the case file, the white copy goes to the customer. The cash goes in the safe. Martin passes the paperwork through the slot. Hayes takes it, and leaves to get Jack Spain, her baby, out of jail. She pauses for a moment and smiles at Martin: "Have a blessed day."
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