Ehrlich urged to sign bail measure

Bill backed by bondsmen negates court rule aimed at reforming state's system

May 04, 2004|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

The Maryland bail bond industry is urging Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to sign into law a bill that would effectively wipe out a new court rule aimed at making it easier and less costly for those charged with minor crimes to get out of jail.

The long-sought rule, adopted by the state's highest court last year, requires court officials - primarily bail commissioners - to inform defendants of the option to put up a 10 percent cash payment to make bail.

This cash alternative in cases where the bail is $2,500 or less has been in effect for years. But until the rule went into effect Jan. 1, there was no requirement that defendants be informed of the option.

With a strong lobbying effort from bail bondsmen - and a heated Senate debate in the final hours of the legislative session - the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill that would eliminate this new court rule.

The bail bond industry insists that the new law is necessary and that the actions of the divided Maryland Court of Appeals effectively changed the existing law and usurped the power of judges and bail commissioners.

"The rule divested the judges of discretion," said Brian Frank, president of the Lexington National Insurance Company, the largest bail bonding insurance company in Maryland.

But supporters of the court's new rule say there hasn't been enough time to assess the effect of the change.

To help make their point, the bail bondsmen have contributed to key state legislators and the governor. They also paid for a dinner with members of the House Judiciary Committee, the first panel to give its approval to the industry bill.

Aides to Ehrlich said that he has taken no position on the bill.

"We assume the governor will sign it," Frank said yesterday.

Each side in the bail battle has a law professor and stacks of statistics to bolster its claims.

Byron L. Warnken, general counsel to the Maryland Bail Bond Association and a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, says the data show defendants are far more likely to show up in court when the bail is provided through a licensed bondsman.

He said the number of defendants who fail to appear after posting the 10 percent cash bail is 34.2 percent higher than for those by bondsmen. And, says Warnken, in those cases where a defendant fails to appear, the bail bondsmen will be motivated to bring the defendant in. Government officials, he said, won't care.

Warnken and Frank also contend that the 10 percent cash bail alternative will end up costing taxpayers both for apprehension costs and imprisonment time. They also say the new rule has had a perverse effect. Judges, they argue, have begun setting bail at just over the $2,500 mark to bypass the cash-bail option.

Douglas Colbert - a University of Maryland law professor who supports the rules change - says the statistics show exactly the opposite. He also says that the new rule has not been given enough time to work.

C. Carey Deeley Jr, a private attorney who has been active on bail issues despite having a predominantly civil law practice, said the bill sponsored by Baltimore Democratic Del. Curt S. Anderson "wipes out" a rules change that was the first small step in a long effort to reform the state's bail system

"These are little cases," said Deely. "I want people of limited means to have an option. There was reasonable debate over several years that produced this rules change. Now it is about to be wiped out. What a phenomenal waste of time."

Judge James Vaughn, chief judge of the Maryland District Court, declined to comment on the bill but agreed that the court's new rule did not change any laws. "The 10 percent rule has always been there," Vaughn said.

Deeley argues that the statistics back the rules change and that, contrary to Warnken's assertions, defendants are more likely to keep their court date when their appearance assures they'll get their money back. The alternative, he said, is to pay a 10 percent nonrefundable fee to a bondsman.

Anderson, the lead sponsor of the bill, got a $500 contribution from Brian Frank in 2002, as did some of the co-sponsors. Ehrlich received a $2,000 contribution from a member of the Frank family that year.

Frank said the bail industry's annual dinner for the House Judiciary Committee, which was held this year at Ruth's Chris Steak House, simply gives bondsmen a chance to inform lawmakers of industry issues. "We did it last year when we didn't have any bills," he said.

For Del. Pauline H. Menes, a Prince George's County Democrat, the competing statistics used by the two sides of the argument are not as important as simple logic.

Obviously, said Menes, someone is more likely to come back to court if he or she knows the bail money will be refunded. The alternative is to pay 10 percent to a bail bondsman knowing you won't get it back.

"The bail bondsmen don't like the new rule because it took away their business, ... and it was good business because these people usually show up," Menes said.

Menes, however, is in a minority. She cast the lone dissenting vote in the House. In the Senate, the measure passed 34-13 on the final day of the session, despite an effort by Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, to defeat it.

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