By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
David Collins is Miami's leading bail bondsman.
David Collins has lots of friends in law enforcement.
David Collins says he's put his criminal past behind him.
Collins continued operating his own bail-bond company, Universal Surety, and quickly made a name for himself as a guy willing to gamble on the big numbers -- and win. "He writes bonds that other bondsmen are not willing to write," says Nathaniel Sala-Suarez, a bondsman who routinely works with Collins. "Some people are ballsy and some people are stupid. He's not stupid."
Collins scored a coup, as well, when he hired Sally Burt as his director of operations. Prior to joining Collins in January 2003, Burt had spent eighteen years regulating the bail-bond industry for the state Department of Insurance (now a division of the Financial Services Department). But her hiring was immediately controversial, largely because she had conducted a series of audits of bondsmen and insurance companies in Miami-Dade County shortly before quitting. Competitor National Surety has sued for "interference with a business relationship," claiming she took proprietary financial information with her to Collins, giving him an unfair business advantage. The suit is pending.
There is another area in which Collins has scored well: persuading judges to vacate bonds after a client has disappeared.
When a defendant skips bail and flees, the bondsman has 60 days to produce him. If the defendant hasn't been found by the deadline, the bond company forfeits the bond and must pay the full amount to the county. That doesn't mean the bondsman can't retrieve his money. The courts allow up to two years to find the defendant, and can refund on a sliding scale up to 85 percent of the bond after the first year and 50 percent of the money after the second year. Another option is for the bond company to notify the criminal court that it wants to argue in civil court why it shouldn't have to forfeit the bond. (The civil-court process is known as estreature.) In either case, law requires the bond to be paid in full in the criminal court until the matter is resolved.
There are legitimate reasons for a bond to be vacated. State law says that if the bond company isn't notified of a defendant's court hearing, and thus is not able to ensure the defendant's attendance, or if authorities increase the charges against a defendant without informing the bond company, then the company is not responsible should the defendant flee.
Under Collins's direction, Seneca frequently won its estreature cases. New Times analyzed two years of these court hearings, comparing Seneca with two other large bond writers, American Banker and Ranger Insurance.
In 2002: Ranger challenged 58 bonds that had gone into forfeiture in Miami-Dade County, worth a combined $117,000. Judges vacated 33 of them, saving Ranger from having to pay $86,500. American Banker challenged 102 bonds, worth $190,000. Judges vacated 54 bonds worth $152,000. Collins, acting on behalf of Seneca, challenged 60 forfeitures worth $200,000. Judges vacated 49 of them, saving the company $190,000.
In 2003: American Banker filed 55 estreature cases worth a total of $97,000. Judges vacated 44 of them, saving the company $81,000. Ranger challenged 86 bonds, worth $173,000, and won 54 of them, a savings of $144,000.
In terms of dollar amount, Seneca far outstripped its competitors last year. It challenged 128 bonds valued at $913,000, and judges vacated 94 of them, saving the company $833,000, nearly ten times the amount of its competitors.
The biggest of those bonds was $400,000 for client Angel Cabrera. Police in Hanover, Massachusetts, arrested Cabrera on February 24, 2003, during an alleged $500,000 cash-for-cocaine transaction with two Colombians. Cabrera was extradited to Miami because the case originated here. On June 11 Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Maria Espinosa Dennis released him on the $400,000 bond. Cabrera promptly disappeared. When he didn't show for an August 11, 2003, hearing, the office of the Miami-Dade Clerk of the Courts sent a "Notice and Forfeiture of Bail Bond" to Collins's office at 1540 NW 15th Street Rd.
All such forfeiture notices are generated by computers in the clerk's office. Scores of them are produced each day and sent out via the U.S. Postal Service. But the notice regarding the Cabrera bond forfeiture contained an address error. It read: 1540 NW 15th Street R (instead of "Road"). The postal service, however, did not return the notice to the clerk's office as "undeliverable." Collins, through his Miami attorney, argued before Judge Peter Lopez that his office never received it.
The county attorney's office assigns a single lawyer to manage all estreature cases, more than a thousand each year. Rashmi Airan-Pace, the assistant county attorney in charge at the time, says she challenged Collins and Seneca in the Cabrera case, but to no avail. "At no point did I agree to vacate this bond," she recounts. "I opposed it, I set it for hearing, and I argued that there was sufficient notice." But Judge Lopez wasn't persuaded and vacated the bond this past December. Collins and Seneca were off the hook for $400,000.
If Collins did not receive the forfeiture notice as he claimed in court, and if the post office did not return it as undeliverable, it likely ended up with Joanne Monrabal, who lives at 1540 NW 15th St. In fact Monrabal says she's been receiving mail for Collins's company, Universal Surety, for the year she's been living there -- including August 2003, when the clerk's office mailed the $400,000 forfeiture notice. "Yeah, back in August I got tons of their mail," she recalls. "I would take it all back to them. I kept telling them to do something about this. I mean, these are official court notices and checks, letters from the clerk of courts. Not once did someone from there come and ask if we had any mail for them.