Home Local News COLUMN: Bonds, Bondsmen and Bounty Hunters: Contending with incarceration

COLUMN: Bonds, Bondsmen and Bounty Hunters: Contending with incarceration

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Most folks learn of the criminal court system through unfortunate events and experiences like a misspent youth, an addiction, a divorce, or a troublesome relative. Not everything online about this subject is accurate, but the essential information is enough to be decently informed. And being informed is infinitely better than being face-down in the dirt, freshly tased and cuffed by a bond agent.

Videos of the misinformed pervade the internet. Sometimes they are hilarious. Often, if you have the backstory on the individual, the videos are sad.

How you get out of jail depends on how severe your situation is. If your charge is domestic — i.e., assault, stalking, communicating threats, violating a protective order, or other crimes against a significant other — you are in jail on a 48-hour hold, and a judge will set your bail.

In minor cases, signing a written promise to appear at future hearings may be all you need to do for your release.

An additional way to secure freedom is with an unsecured bond. Most misdemeanors qualify for this. The magistrate sets the amount, and you walk away without any out-of-pocket expense. However, if you fail to appear for a court hearing, a money judgment for the bond is entered against you. There could be a warrant issued for your arrest. If you are arrested again, you’ll need to pay the money judgment and a higher bond to secure release — or you might stay in jail until your hearing.

People oversleep and forget things. These complications may be mitigated by a few phone calls followed by your inevitable appearance in court. An attorney can make a legal motion to have your failure to appear recalled, and the case would continue as if the missed court date had not happened.

Sometimes these complications are not mitigated by a few phone calls.

Unsecured bonds are tough to enforce. Unless the case falls in the hands of a tenacious warrant officer, it is usually up to local law enforcement to find a fugitive, and they have enough on their plate. In many instances, police locate court no-shows by happenstance — a routine traffic stop, or deputies find fugitives engaged in more serious criminal activity. Some never get caught.

Robert Smith is a 16-year lawman currently with the White Pine Police department in Tennessee. And he’s my brother.

“If they get out of town quickly, they can stay loose for a few weeks,” he says of individuals who have skipped on his watch.

The most common way to get out of jail is a secured bond. You can post a bond in cash, and the court clerk will hold your money until you appear at your hearing. Sometimes you can use a home or land as collateral to get out of jail. The cleared equity on the property must meet or exceed the bond amount, have no other liens, and the property taxes paid up for the previous year. This practice varies by county. In the case of a delinquent child support bond, you will pay a magistrate what you owe to the plaintiff.

If you cannot post bond with cash or property, you can hire a professional bondsman. Let’s say either a magistrate or a judge has set your secured bond at $5,000 for maybe a misdemeanor, felony, or a failure to appear. A bondsman can put up their own money to cover the bond through the N.C. Department of Insurance, which regulates all bondsmen, or they can also use their go-to insurance company to pledge the $5,000.

The bondsman usually requires a cosigner (often, they look for an employed family member who will ensure you attend all your court appearances.) The maximum fee a bondsman can charge, by law, is 15% of the bond. If you are a no-show in court for 150 days, the bondsman must pay that $5,000 to the court for the bond. During this time, the bondsman pursues you and may do so with the assistance of a fugitive recovery team. The bondsman may also collect the $5,000 from the cosigner who contractually agreed to pay it.

Bail enforcement agents are your “bounty hunters.” Though, that is an inaccurate term that belongs on reality television, westerns, and Star Wars films. Bounty hunting, as it was once known, is no longer a thing. A recovery agent must be a licensed bondsman in their respective states.

Agents are bondsmen specializing in recovery. They don’t need a warrant to enter the premises listed on their paperwork. Otherwise, they are bound by the same laws as police and sheriff’s deputies. They can cross state lines —in a way. So, do not assume you can ride it out at a saloon in nearby Cheraw, South Carolina, if you skip bail in Richmond County, North Carolina.

Lawrie Evans has been operating as a professional bail agent for more than 18 years in many different counties.

“It’s a tag-team effort,” says Evans of multi-state recoveries. “I would have to hire a recovery agent in South Carolina who would then hand over the individual to the agent I hired in North Carolina.”

According to Evans, there is an excellent reason for this. Laws regarding fugitive recovery, conceal and open-carry permits, and many other issues vary from state to state. There is no way to be briefed on them all. It is not a good look for a recovery agent to inadvertently end up in a cell somewhere in Georgia. But it has happened because, as with any profession, this one too has less-than-astute operators. Evans refers to them as individuals “who like to kick in doors,” and their existence makes well-regarded recovery agents bristle.

“Years ago, there was a case of a bondsman who was chasing a defendant while carrying a firearm. This defendant ran into a school, and the bondsman chased him into the school while carrying a firearm.”

The bondsman went to jail and lost her license.

In North Carolina, enforcement agents usually collect 10% of the bond plus expense reimbursement. They only get paid if they secure you, so probably, they will have you headed home before you can finish denying who you are or attempting to scramble over a backyard fence.

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Agents are not attention-seeking individuals like Duane Chapman, nor will they have Mandalorian swagger.

“The show ‘Dog, the Bounty Hunter,’ has made some things more difficult for recovery and bail agents,” Evans says regarding the profession’s image and the revelation of trade secrets. Though she is quick to say that Chapman is very good at what he does and that he’s been a “champion for the need to continue placing bond conditions on defendants.”

The show is entertaining.

“I had to laugh one night while watching his show. He announced that they had been ‘made’ (spotted by the defendant). That team is pretty hard to miss with his very famous face and mullet, large tactical team, several matching black SUVs and camera crew.”

Most recovery agents are inconspicuous. They will probably not have a camera crew, but they will sport active bodycams. If they show up in full tactical gear, they have deemed you a considerable threat or anticipated having to breach your residence, and that is the last thing they want to do.

Kay Sharpe is the owner of Beacon Bail Bonding of Wilmington, and co-owner of the North Carolina Apprehension Team.

“We have to knock and announce that we’re bail bondsmen. We can’t simply walk up to a house, kick the door, and go in. The people inside need to be warned. There’s also a safety aspect for us. I try very, very hard to find other solutions. I’ve spent hours talking to someone through a door I had every right to kick. I’ve called homeowners, spouses, mothers, and friends in hopes they could reason with the defendant.”

The initial search usually begins online.

“I don’t even look at the file,” says Sharpe. “Sometimes, on a contract, all I have is a name. I don’t even have a date of birth. I go to Google and put in the name and the city. The second search I do is your name and the word ‘obituary.'”

Because sometimes people are not missing. They are just dead. Or maybe a U.S. Marshal picked them up — there’s a search for that too.

“The other thing is that an obituary gives me a family tree,” she says. “Say your uncle died; it’s gonna list you as a nephew and all your cousins, brothers, sisters, and grandma. Everybody is gonna be in there.”

Sharpe once found someone who wiped her social media presence save for tagging her roommate in a post on her aunt’s Facebook page six months before. Sharpe searched for the roommate’s address and then sent in her agent to collect the fugitive.

“He had her in custody within 15 minutes of getting there.”

The moral of all this? It’s expensive to be a criminal, and very few people get away with running. But also, bad things happen to respectable people. The best things to do are to know the process, endure the process, and avoid complicating the process. In addition, it is not glamorous at all —
neither to be a fugitive nor to be the one hunting a fugitive.

“I’ve had to search rooms filled halfway to the ceiling with rotting garbage,” says Sharpe. “I’ve had to dress abscesses from drug use before I could transport people. I’ve bought defendants a burger on the way to jail, only to find out that’s the first food they’ve had in days.”

Sean Patrick Smith is a freelance columnist and author of “Three Miles of Eden,” a murder mystery set in Seven Lakes, North Carolina, in which Richmond County, makes multiple appearances.