Bail Bondsmen Bill Stirs Post-Session Controversy

A bill that “slipped through” the Legislature during the last session rewrites a portion of state law on bail bonds to allow bondsmen to avoid liability once a defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty, reports The Tennessean. It’s apparently causing some turmoil in the criminal justice system.

No longer will bondsmen remain liable until a defendant is actually sentenced.

A review of videotapes of House and Senate sessions shows there was little discussion of the bill, and confusion dominated what little discussion took place.

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, plainly told an inquiring colleague just before the final House vote that the bill would require the bonds to remain in effect until the time of sentencing.

“It requires the surety to remain in effect till sentencing,” Dean said in response to a question from Rep. William Lamberth, a Republican from Cottontown.

Instead, judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers say the law, which already has gone into effect, allows bondsmen to withdraw from a case at the time of a guilty plea or verdict, leaving the defendant liable to be put in jail or pay for another bond. Sentencing can come days or weeks after a plea is entered.

Opponents say that if the defendant is jailed from the time of a guilty finding until sentencing, the state or county will have to pick up the cost of that additional jail time.

The new law prompted judges of Davidson County’s criminal court to issue a rare emergency order, which remains in effect indefinitely, requiring that bondsmen at least notify their clients of plans to revoke the bonds. It sets different requirements for bonds in effect before the May 6 effective date of the new law.

Bonding companies failing to comply with the notice requirements risk having all bonding privileges in Davidson County suspended.

…Charles White, head of the Tennessee Association of Professional Bail Agents, said the “very unusual” edict by the Davidson County judges amounts to “extortion. The judges have usurped the power of the legislature.”

White said the association pushed for the change because the risk of flight increases once a defendant is found guilty.

“Once there is a guilty finding or a plea, our work is done,” White said, “but they want us to remain liable.”

…Lamberth, the legislator who raised questions about the bill, said he was pleased that another provision in the measure was eliminated. That provision would have set time limits on how long a bond would remain in effect, depending on the crime committed.

As to Dean’s answer to his question, Lamberth said, “I can only assume it was a misunderstanding.”

Dean also said it was a misunderstanding and added he would be willing to work out a correction.

“I try my best to work with everyone,” he said.


Note: The bill is SB736/HB102 by Dean and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.