DennisBeaverMay 08, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

It is the last type of phone call anyone wants to receive: A family member is in jail. “Please, bail me out!” is their plea. But, should you?

Hanford Bail Bondsman Eddie Brieno knows only too well the impact of such calls. “So much is going through your mind at that time. For most parents – whose children have never been in trouble with the law before – the initial reaction can be close to panic. What happened? How serious is this? Will they be hurt by some violent inmate? I’ve got to get them out! Who do I call?”

The person most often contacted at that time will be a bail agent, also referred to as a bondsman.

“Next to hearing the doctor announce a serious health issue, this is one of the toughest situations for an individual, family or close friends ever to be in. When we arrange bail, the feeling of relief is beyond words,” Brandon Poser of Bakersfield-based Patriot Bail Bonds told me, showing a great deal of pride in his ability to help families in these stressful times.

In my discussions with bondsmen from Hanford, the San Francisco Bay Area, and here in Bakersfield where I practice law, something immediately became apparent:

“There is a great deal of misunderstanding about how bail works, and of the responsibility of the friends and family who sign bail contracts,” according to Tony Suggs, Spokesperson for the California Bail Agents Association.

Someone needs to say no

“In what can easily be a panic situation, somebody needs to calmly step in and determine if that person in jail should be bailed out – if it seems likely they will fail to appear in court, skip town, leaving those people who signed the bail contract on the hook. That’s an important part of a our job, being able to say no,” Hanford’s Brieno stressed.

“The question that too few people ask themselves is perhaps the most important: ‘Should I assume what could be a huge financial obligation, to bail someone out of jail who may very well skip?’ This is especially true where the court sets an extremely high bail. The reason is usually because that person is a flight risk,” he pointed out.

The concept of bail is based on a simple notion: Defendants in criminal cases who deposit money with the court are safe to be let out jail and will make their court appearances if they could lose that money by not showing up. At the end of the case, the money is refunded. If the defendant skips out, the funds are forfeited, and once found, it’s back to jail.

Of course, most of us do not have large amounts of cash sitting in a desk drawer, and that’s where a bondsman comes into the picture. For a fee – usually 10 percent of the bail amount – a “bond” is filed with the court.

“A bail bond is a contract, obligating us to pay the full amount of the bail to the court if the defendant fails to make his appearances. It also a contract with co-signers, who usually put up collateral – their home, for example – which could be sold to cover the bond. This rarely happens, but the risk of losing that property is real if the defendant skips,” as Sherief El-Ansary, also of Patriot Bail Bonds explains.

But in most cases, a defendant will make all court appearances, and once the case is over, the bond will be canceled (exonerated) by the court.

Where the defendant actually skips or fails to show up for court appearances, a warrant is issued. If the defendant is not located and returned to custody within 185 days, the bonding company must pay the bail amount to the court.

“If we can’t find him within that time period, co-signers are on the hook for the entire amount of the bond, as well as expenses incurred in looking for him,” the California Bail Agents Association spokesman said.

When in doubt about flight – speak up!

What should you do if you are concerned the defendant you co-signed for will skip? Patriot’s Poser left no doubt about what absolutely must occur:

“Tell us immediately! This is the basis for a surrender. We obtain a written statement from a co-signer and take this to the judge. We will then be authorized to take that person into custody and bring them back to the jail. This ends your continuing financial obligation.”

If you are a co-signer, understand that you are on the hook financially until the case is over, which could mean years. There is a difference between being a good friend and a sucker.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.