Four Columbus bail bondsmen were charged with burglary more than a decade ago after they entered the West Side apartment of a woman whose brother had skipped bail. At least two of the men pulled guns on the woman. Franklin County juries acquitted two of the bondsmen in 2001. Before the year ended, the county prosecutor's office had dismissed the charges against the other two. The case illustrates the expansive powers of bondsmen - technically known as bail-bond agents - in tracking down defendants for whom they post bond, said Columbus lawyer Joseph Landusky, who defended one of the men.
Four Columbus bail bondsmen were charged with burglary more than a decade ago after they entered the West Side apartment of a woman whose brother had skipped bail.
At least two of the men pulled guns on the woman.
Franklin County juries acquitted two of the bondsmen in 2001. Before the year ended, the county prosecutor’s office had dismissed the charges against the other two.
The case illustrates the expansive powers of bondsmen — technically known as bail-bond agents — in tracking down defendants for whom they post bond, said Columbus lawyer Joseph Landusky, who defended one of the men.
“These guys have more powers than the police do,” he said. “They don’t need a warrant. They can go anywhere they want” to apprehend someone “as long as they’re acting in good faith.”
Their powers are such that Prosecutor Ron O’Brien said last week that he will not seek criminal charges against a bail bondsman who shot and wounded a man he was trying to apprehend — without a warrant — in Valleyview late last year.
“There are some ancient statutes on the subject as well as court decisions that grant close to carte blanche to bondsmen to seek those they wrote a bond on,” O’Brien said.
Perhaps the most important of those rulings is an 1872 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Taylor v. Taintor.
The court found that when a bail agent posts bond to get a defendant out of jail while awaiting trial, the agent has custody over the person in “a continuation of the original imprisonment. Whenever they choose to do so, they may seize him and deliver him up. ... They may pursue him into another state” and “break into and enter his house for that purpose.”
A warrant is not necessary, the court ruled. And unlike police officers, bail agents don’t need to seek extradition to bring back someone who crosses state lines.
“Bail is an extension of jail,” said Columbus bail-bond agent Woody Fox.
And those who post bond to cover a defendant’s bail are responsible for making sure the person shows up for all court dates.
The agents get involved in cases in which a judge requires bail in the form of a surety bond to release a defendant awaiting trial. For example, if a judge sets bail at $100,000 and requires a surety bond, the defendant can pay 10 percent — $10,000 — to an agent who posts a bond to cover the full amount.
Defendants, or usually one or more co-signers, are required to provide collateral, such as a house or other real estate, that will cover the bail in case they don’t show up for court. Because the bond agents and their insurance companies hold the bond promising to cover the bail, a lot of money can be at stake for them if the defendant skips out.
Until 2001, bail-bond agents in Ohio were required to hold the same license as insurance agents. The state legislature changed the law, creating a separate license. Applicants must take a class and pass an examination and a criminal-background check.
Ohio Department of Insurance records show that 550 people hold a license to post bail bonds in the state.
Fox said he turns down more bonds than he posts. “A lot of them are bad risks,” he said. For every 500 bonds he writes, Fox estimated that 35 to 40 become “skips.”
“Most are just lazy people who miss court,” he said. “They’re usually right here in Columbus. … We’re able to talk most of them in” without leaving the office.
But because a handful of those who jump bail require apprehension, the job can be dangerous, said Fox, a former Columbus police officer. He would like to see the state require bail-bond agents to complete tactical training in how to safely bring people in. If the bail skipper is potentially dangerous, Fox often relies on local law officers, including SWAT teams, to help. He said he’d rather sit outside a house for hours waiting for the person to come out than go to the door for a confrontation.
"It’s all about money,” he said, “and you don’t want someone to get hurt or killed over money."