How They Pay to Play

An aspiring bail bondsman must take an 80-hour certification course and a 20-hour correspondence course, and pass a state examination, to become licensed by the State of Florida. Even then he or she can't open for business until signing a contract with an insurance company, which gives the bondsman authority to post bond.

Once he's in business and has a client, the bondsman submits a "power of attorney" (not actual cash) to the court, pledging full payment should the defendant fail to appear on the scheduled court date.

Typically it works like this: A bondsman gets a call from the family or a friend of a defendant. He charges ten percent (a maximum set by law for state cases) of the value of the bail amount as his commission. He also usually takes money and/or property as collateral, within the restrictions of state law. Depending on his insurance company's policies and his own business philosophy, the bondsman may or may not collateralize the full amount of the bail. If he feels confident the defendant will show in court, the bondsman may choose to take little or no collateral.

Once the case is resolved and the defendant is either released or convicted, the county clerk's office has ten days to issue written notice, and the bondsman has 21 days after that to return the collateral to its owner. The bondsman must pay part of the ten-percent commission to the insurance company. (The amount varies depending on the agreement.) The insurer keeps part of the money as its commission, putting the rest into a so-called build-up fund, akin to a retirement fund, on behalf of the bondsman. Money in the fund can be used to cover emergencies and to pay losses incurred by the bondsman.

Such losses include forfeiture of the entire bond if the defendant does not appear in court. A judge then issues an arrest warrant. The bondsman, who has powers of arrest, is given 35 days to find the defendant and surrender him. If he can't find the defendant, the bondsman must pay the full amount to the clerk's office, although he can request extensions and even get his money back if he happens to surrender the prisoner after the 35-day limit. (Rules governing federal courts are more strict, and many insurance companies won't allow their bondsmen to write federal bonds.)

If the bondsman fails to pay up, the clerk's office is supposed to issue a judgment against his insurance company. If the bond isn't paid within the next 60 days, the State Department of Insurance notifies the clerk's office to suspend the bondsman's privileges. The insurance company then has 75 days to pay the amount of the bond. If the company doesn't pay, it is prohibited from writing any bonds in Florida.

 
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