Bail-bond agents gamble on unknown
Bail bond agents say their industry shouldn't be blamed for the shooting deaths of four Lakewood police officers by a man authorities say had bailed out of jail just six days earlier.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Coverage from the days following the Lakewood shootings
CHEHALIS — There's a sign in the window at the Jail Sucks Bail Bonds office that says "Open 24 hours," but the door is locked and the lights are out.
This is the company that agreed to post a $190,000 bond, allowing Maurice Clemmons to walk out of the Pierce County Jail last week. Six days later, authorities say, Clemmons walked into a coffee shop and gunned down four Lakewood police officers.
The owner of the company hasn't returned phone calls, but bond agents say their industry shouldn't get the blame for a case like this.
"If this guy (Clemmons) had come to me ... if he had sufficient collateral and money, would I have bonded him out? Most likely," said Ty Brokaw, owner of Bad Boy Bail Bonds in Tacoma. "If I knew this guy would do what he did, hell no."
'You never know'
And that's the conundrum for bail-bond agents. "You never know," said Holly Bishop, president of the Washington State Bail Agents Association.
"You have that big sign, 'Innocent until proven guilty.' If he's paid his crime in the past and goes off the deep end again, what are you going to do?"
Bail-bond agents are often the subject of movies and television shows, but the average person doesn't run into them unless they're in trouble.
It's a little-known industry — except to people working in the legal system — regulated by both the state Department of Licensing and the Office of the Insurance Commissioner.
Bail-bond agents go through criminal-background checks and training and have to pass exams by both agencies to be licensed.
There are 78 bail-bond agencies licensed in the state. Jail Sucks was licensed in 2007.
The Department of Licensing says 54 complaints have been filed so far this year regarding bail-bond companies.
Jail Sucks received none, although in 2008 the department discovered two of the company's branches were not licensed.
That has since been resolved, and the firm is in full compliance, according to the department.
The Pierce County Prosecutor's Office said Clemmons was turned away by two bail-bond agencies, based on his history of failure to appear in court. However, Chehalis-based Jail Sucks Bail Bonds agreed to issue a bond.
The charges Clemmons posted bail on included second-degree rape of a child and assault.
Bond agencies generally require defendants to put up 10 percent of the bond. They can let defendants pay the 10 percent over a period of time, but it's up to the company.
The agency keeps the money paid upfront; that's how they make a living.
They also generally require collateral, such as a lien on a home, for the remainder of the bail.
In return, the agency essentially tells the court it will be responsible for paying the bail if the defendant flees.
When a person tries to escape, the bail-bond agency usually goes after them. Brokaw said he's generally given six to eight weeks to hunt down a person and bring them back.
No payment required
In this case, because Clemmons was shot dead by a Seattle police officer early Tuesday, Jail Sucks is off the hook and will not have to pay the bail. Plus it can keep whatever fees were paid by Clemmons, according to Craig Adams, a Pierce County deputy prosecutor.
A woman answering phones for Jail Sucks said the company is open for business, but the Chehalis office was in the process of moving and closed temporarily. She would not answer questions related to Clemmons' case.
The Jail Sucks Web site has an extensive letter addressing what happened. Part of the letter reads:
"I want to be clear that had we known Clemmons was capable of such a heinous crime we never would have posted this bond. ... As a requirement of the bond, given the charges and size of the bond, we required Clemmons to be on a GPS bracelet and to check in weekly and also to have two co-signers and put up a piece of property as collateral. We met with Clemmons twice during the week of the 23rd, once when he was released and again on the 24th. Nothing at that time seemed out of the ordinary."
The Lakewood police officers were killed Sunday, five days after the last meeting.
Police said they found a GPS ankle bracelet during a search of a house where Clemons was believed to have been staying.
State lawmakers are promising hearings and an exhaustive look at what happened and why, including scrutiny of the bail system.
State Rep. Al O'Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace, vice chairman of the House Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee, said he wants to change state law so that people charged with serious violent crimes have to pay the entire bail themselves instead of being allowed to post 10 percent through a bail-bond agency.
Tom McBride, executive secretary of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said he believes Washington has more expansive rights than many states when it comes to setting bail.
In fact, the only crime for which a judge can deny bail is aggravated murder, which carries the potential death penalty.
"The truth is the state Constitution presumes you have a right to bail and presumes it won't be an excessive bail," McBride said.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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