Update on St. Pete shooting

“It’s a dangerous profession, often misunderstood by the public.”

A local St. Petersburg, Florida news station aired an outstanding follow-up report, featuring an interview with Armando Roche, past president of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States (PBUS).

This brief video, which follows last week’s shooting at a McDonald’s drive through,  is well worth watching.

http://wfla.com/2015/11/13/video-of-shooting-at-mcdonalds-drive-thru-in-st-petersburg-called-disturbing/

 

Shooting in St. Petersburg, Florida puts private bail into spotlight

Tragically, during the recent apprehension of a fugitive felon, a woman named Vonceia Welch was shot. First news reports suggest that the shooting was accidental. Welch was a passenger in the same car as a fugitive who was being sought by bail agents. The fugitive, Deveon Stokes, was taken into custody. The driver of the car, Joshua Allonso Malone, was also a wanted fugitive and was arrested by police after the shooting.

News reports state that a team of 3 or 4 bail agents caught up with their fugitive in a car at the drive-up window of a St. Petersburg McDonalds. When the bail agents surrounded and approached the car a gun was discharged and Welch was injured.

The man they were after, Stokes, has a lengthy criminal history dating to 2007. He served 20 months in prison on charges of extortion and grand theft of a motor vehicle. He was released in May 2014, and was arrested a month later, and this time accused of cocaine possession. His most recent arrest was in June. When he failed to appear for a pretrial hearing on his drug case, a new warrant for his arrest was issued and his $21,000 bond was forfeited by the court. Malone, the sedan’s driver, was wanted on unrelated aggravated assault and firearm possession charges from an Oct. 19 incident where police said he shot at three people, one of them a toddler. By any reasonable measuring stick, these two are each bad actors and potentially very dangerous criminals.

None of this, of course, justifies the shooting of the car’s other passenger, Vonceia Welch. No one yet knows for certain what took place when the shooting occurred. The state is looking into the possibility of criminal charges against the bail agent who fired the shoot. There almost certainly will follow civil actions. The facts are not yet known, and an investigation by the police and state attorney is underway.

The absence of any direct knowledge of the situation hasn’t deterred one of commercial bail’s most vociferous critics from weighing in with his special brand of utter nonsense. Timothy Murray, a hypocrite who for decades fronted a publicly-funded DC outfit called “The Pretrial Justice Institute,” felt compelled to weigh in on this tragedy in order to promote his lame-brained agenda. Murray called the shooting “tragically emblematic of how broken the cash bail bond system is.”

Tim Murray, a disingenuous hypocrite

Tim Murray, a disingenuous hypocrite

“It [money bail] was never designed to make the community safe. There is no accountability,” he said, adding that bail money goes “directly into the pockets of businessmen.”

Murray went on to say that the system is supposed to guarantee someone who has made bail shows up to court. But it doesn’t work, he said, otherwise bond agents wouldn’t have anyone to chase. “The very thing that was supposed to assure his appearance — cash on the table — he didn’t do it,” he said.

Even Murray cannot possibly be stupid or obtuse enough to believe what he is saying. Rather, he is being purposefully disingenuous by claiming that if commercial bail worked, bail agents wouldn’t have to “chase” fugitives. Murray disregards that this is precisely why commercial secured bail works — because bail agents have a vested financial interest in making certain that their defendants appear in court.

Regardless of the tragedy that took place, this team of bail agents risked their own lives in order to bring a dangerous fugitive to justice. The reason they apprehended and arrested Deveon Stokes and returned him to the Pinellas County jail is to avoid paying a $21,000 penalty for failing to fulfill their obligation to the state of Florida on the bond.

For decades, Tim Murray has advocated for the “free” pretrial release of accused criminals. The most significant problem with this approach beyond the waste of tax dollars needed in order to staff these ineffective government programs is that when a defendant fails to appear in court, no one is held accountable. It’s a sucker’s bet that Tim Murray and his fellow “free bail” zealots will never be involved in a shooting during the apprehension of a fugitive. This is because they don’t ever attempt to bring back fugitives. If you ask one of these free pretrial advocates “what do you do when they fail to appear in court?” you are most often met with a glassy-eyed, dumbfounded stare. Typically, they will shrug and guess that since a warrant is issued, maybe the police will make an arrest?

Timmy Murray started out his career — the entirety of which seems to have been spent on the public dole — in Miami-Dade County, Florida where he helped set up the nation’s first drug court. For 14 years he headed up the county’s “free” pretrial release program, and affected the wholesale release from jail of thousands of accused felons. As a result, Miami-Dade County currently has literally tens of thousands of open felony warrants and a budget that only allows law enforcement to actively seek out the worst of the worst.  Drug court is considered by many criminals as a complete joke – they know they will be released from jail for free and that there will be little or no consequences for non-compliance. The program allows defendants to get of jail for free and to commit violations over and over and over again with virtually no consequence. No one is held accountable for their non-appearance in court.

Murray also never misses an opportunity (like this shooting) to rant his misguided belief that commercial secured bail keeps poor low level offenders “trapped” in jail while those with money have a way out – even when facing more serious charges. This is complete bunk. Deveon Stokes is not affluent yet he and his family were easily able to obtain the services of a bail agent to secure his release from jail. Bail agents routinely allow their clients to make payments. The family of the accused (as opposed to the taxpayers) pays a small percentage of the bail. However, the bail agent pledges the entire amount ($21,000 in this case) to the state as security. If the bail agent fails to produce the defendant he or she pays a substantial penalty to the state.

In contrast to Murray’s drivel, the reporter also sought out St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway who said that police generally have a “very good working relationship” with bail bondsmen.

The reporter also contacted Armando Roche, past president of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States.”The arrest by bail bondsmen of people that fail to go to court occurs every single day across this country,” he said. “Not to the extent of what happened in St. Pete today, but these arrests are effectuated every day.”

Typically, when an accused criminal fails to appear as required in court, a judge issues a warrant for their arrest. If the defendant is on a secured commercial bail, a bail agent goes looking for them, makes an arrest and brings them back to custody. If they are released via one of Tim Murray’s government programs, a warrant is issued and hopefully the defendant will one day run into law enforcement.

Which alternative is a better deal for taxpayers?

“How do they get them back to court?”

“This is an insane way of doing business.”

I don’t know who made this video but it was sent to me by Guy Ruggerio. Guy is the President of the Association of Louisiana Bail Underwriters. Guy also serves with me on the board of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States (PBUS).

I like the video very much. (If anyone knows who put this together, please let me know.) Often we bail agents are accused of speaking or acting from our pocket books. It is true we have a vested financial interest in pretrial release. But we also have a front row seat and a unique perspective that allows us to evaluate different methods of pretrial release. All too often the taxpayers are sold a complete bill-of-goods, which certainly seems the case here.

Does a bad headline reflect an image problem? Or a behavior problem?

The banner on the front page of today’s Miami Herald reads: “Murder trial of bail bondsman forges ahead with no body”. It’s a lurid, well written local crime story involving a missing-body murder case, stolen money, a victim who worked as an escort and a married suspect. There is only one problem with the sensational headline. The accused murderer is not a bail bondsman.  He’s never been a bail bondsman. He evidently once worked as a handyman for bail bond agent.

HeraldThe online version of the Herald has an equally incorrect headline: “Married bail bondsman is on trial for murder of his lover in 2013”

When I was a kid I had a paper route. Imagine this headline: “Newspaper publisher steals case of beer from neighbor’s unlocked garage.”  (Note that I am not admitting anything here — just illustrating a point.)

I asked the reporter and he admitted that the headline is wrong but defended his story — which states only that the suspect once worked for a bail bond agent. The reporter joked, ”I guess the editors didn’t read the paper!”

These factually incorrect headlines make me think. After all, the Herald editors could have easily gone with any of the following alternative but accurate headlines:

“Murder trial of married handyman forges ahead with no body”

“Married handyman is on trial for murder of his lover in 2013”

“Married bail bondsman is on trial for murder of his lover in 2013”

“Murder trial of convicted drug trafficker forges ahead with no body”

“Murder trial of previous murder suspect forges ahead with no body”

Why did they use the factually incorrect bail bondsman description instead? My uncomfortable theory is that to the headline editors, it fits. My guess is they have no difficulty associating sleazy behavior with bail bondsman.  So when they saw a story about murder, theft, drug trafficking and infidelity and then noticed the (ought-to-be irrelevant) fact that the suspect once worked for a bail bondsman, BINGO: sensational headline!

We can bemoan the fact that we are often portrayed unfairly in the media. We can also take action where appropriate in order to set the record straight. (I did write to the reporter to let him know the headlines for his story are untrue.)

But I think we have more than an image problem. I think all-too-often, we have a behavior problem. Florida does not allow convicted felons to become licensed or to work in the bail bond business in any capacity whatsoever. We bail agents should work together to see to it that other states follow suit.

As bondsman, we do a very good job of ensuring that accused criminals appear for their trial. We are good at what we do, and no government program or alternative method of pretrial release performs better. That said, we do a poor job of communicating what we do the stake holders in the criminal justice system.

If we are sometimes unable to tell the difference between ourselves and our clients, whose fault is that? This is not simply a media problem; this is our profession’s problem.

If we want to be treated as professionals, we need to do a better job of dressing, talking and behaving like professionals.  The guy hocking electronic bracelets to the sheriff and county commissioner is wearing a suit and tie. He may be selling a figment of everyone’s imagination, but he looks and sounds impressive while doing it. How are we looking? Isn’t our image problem all-too-often a reflection of our behavior problem?

I welcome your (constructive) thoughts.

Another reporter gets duped by pretrial release progam

I wonder if anyone in central Florida watched the hatchet job that recently aired (November 5, 2015) on Channel 9 wftv.com

The piece was titled9investigatesbanner: “9 Investigates the high cost of keeping people in jail” and opened with a breathless news anchor Martie Salt exclaiming: “It’s costing you millions of dollars a year to lock up people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime yet.”

“Nine investigates: Follow the money that’s working to keep the county jail full year round.”

Co-anchor Bob Opsahl chimed in: “As investigative reporter Christopher Heath discovered, jail and bail is big money! And you’re paying for it!” 

Curiously, Heath opened his “investigative” report with the criminal case of Greg Dodge. According to Heath, Dodge drove drunk and killed a 10-year old girl when he drove into a parked car on the turnpike. After he was arrested for this heinous crime, Dodge put up bond. He pledged his own assets and those of his parents and posted bond through a bail agent – meaning he was released at no cost to the taxpayers. The bail agent insured that Dodge appeared for his trial where he was sentenced and sent to prison – meaning the bail agent did his or her job. Again, at no cost to the taxpayers.  This point did not fit Heath’s narrative and so instead he strangely used this case to illustrate that unlike Dodge, some accused criminals might not be able to use their family’s resources to post bond.

Incidentally, Dodge served a substantial prison sentence for his crime. The private bail agent fulfilled his obligation to the court by ensuring Dodge’s appearance.

Heath’s crackerjack reporting also revealed the following:

  •  “Volusia County has a robust pretrial release program.”              
  • “It’s (the Volusia pretrial program) looked to release suspects with non-violent offenses, monitoring them until their court date, saving the county $60 per day. “
  • “Volusia County estimates it saves about $3 million a year through its use of pretrial release.”

Heath reached this bizarre conclusion: “If pretrial release is so effective in Volusia why do more than half of the counties in Florida not have the same program?”

Here are a few questions for Heath that I would love to see answered:

  • Is killing a 10-year-old girl while driving drunk considered a “non-violent” offense?
  • Since Greg Dodge was out on a private bond, didn’t the bonding agency also save the county $60 per day? How much did the bail agent charge the county for those savings? Do you think a defendant with nothing at risk would voluntarily appear when he is facing a sentence of decades in prison?

Here are some facts that Heath somehow missed: according to their own records, Volusia County’s pretrial release program released 4,089 defendants in 2013. The budget for this program was $1,317,422, which comes out to a cost to the taxpayers of approximately $322 per released defendant. According to the program’s own records, 31% of the defendants released to their program were also released on private bonds. Of course the bail agents did not charge taxpayers anything to affect these 1,268 releases. Every single defendant who was released on bond (How many were there, Mr. Heath?) saved Volusia county over $60 per day, at no cost to the taxpayers.

 “While Volusia County hails its program as a success that saves taxpayers money while keeping people out of jail, state leaders have not been nearly as supportive of the program.”

Heath suggests that the reason these government programs are not expanding quickly enough is because bail agents have supposedly given a whopping $280,000 to Florida politicians since 2010. If true, this works out to $56,000 per year. Given that there are about 2,400 hard-working private taxpaying licensed bail agents in Florida, it works out to approximately a $23 donation per agent per year.  The pretrial program in Volusia County alone costs over $1.3 million annually.

Here are questions for anyone interested in actually conducting an investigation, as opposed to repeating what the government program lobbyist spoon feeds you: How many open felony bench warrants are there currently in Volusia County?  If all the people who are released to this program are so well “monitored” and “supervised” why the thousands of open warrants?

When a person on bond fails to appear, the bail agent apprehends the fugitive. If unsuccessful in returning the fugitive, the bail agent pays a substantial penalty for failures to appear. What happens when a person released to the program fails to appear?

Shame on Christopher Heath and Channel 9 in Orlando. Your story should have been about why are taxpayers posting bogus bail bonds for accused criminals?

If you’re looking for real reporting this week, try the Albuquerque Journal. The headline is slightly misleading but the reporting is real.  When a drunk driver fled, the only one interested in returning him to justice was the bondsman, who tracked down his man in a neighboring state and returned him to justice.

“We provide hundreds of jobs, pay millions in taxes, provide community safety and get people to court so justice can be done,” says Albuquerque bail bondsman Gerald Madrid, president of the Bail Bond Association of New Mexico and a member of a family with three generations in the bail business across the state.