Shameful!! Bail Bondsman Practices borders on Fraud & Deception for the Poor

| January 11, 2011 | 0 Comments

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The New York State Insurance Department, which licenses bondsmen, has received about 60 complaints against George Zouvelos,
a bail-bond agent, at a sentencing last year, and his company, Spartan Bail Bonds.

For some, the pain of having a love one arrested and placed behind bars pending the outcome of their case is heart wrenching. The financial hardship it poses on indigent defendants and their loved ones to be able to post a bond to have them freed pending the outcome of their case has created a financial opportunity for one unscrupulous business man in New York City who is the owner of Spartan Bail Bonds.

According to public record complaints, George Zouvelos has found a way to take advantage of the legal process that governs the way he conducts business by tacking on absorbent bonding fees and then arbitrarily revoking his clients bonds and sending them back to jail. This was the case when he revoked 89 bonds in a four month period. These types of practices have made some wonder why Zouvelos isn’t in jail himself.

Before George Zouvelos agrees to post someone’s bail, a customer must put up cash, sign a 20-page contract and initial 86 separate paragraphs.

Those paragraphs are chock-full of fees: $250 if the defendant misses a weekly check-in; as much as $375 an hour for obscure tasks like bail consulting and research; and unspecified amounts if Mr. Zouvelos, a bail bondsman based in Manhattan, farms out tasks like obtaining court documents or delivering release papers to jail.

Then there are the thousands of dollars that Mr. Zouvelos can charge if he decides to revoke a bond and return a defendant to jail, as he did 89 times during a four-month period last year.

The common perception of how the bail-bond system operates is fairly straightforward: A bondsman bails a defendant out of jail. If that defendant misses a court appearance, the bondsman can “surrender” him — chase him down and haul him back to jail.

The reality is more troubling.

Vague laws and insufficient oversight have allowed some bondsmen in New York to return defendants to jail for questionable or unspecified reasons, and then withhold thousands of dollars to which they may not be entitled, according to lawyers, judges, state regulators and even some bondsmen.

Those cases turn the system on its head: Those who are supposed to give poor defendants a shot at freedom while their cases are pending are instead the ones locking them up and disenfranchising them further.

The laws “are open for exploitation,” said James Carfora, a Long Island-based bail bondsman.

“They need to be more specific,” he said. “If I bail a guy out today and I don’t like him, I can put him back in jail, and it’s O.K. To me, that’s screwed up.”

Complaints against bondsmen have risen in recent years, according to the New York State Insurance Department. Although the allegations may often involve only a thousand dollars, that sum can be the difference between freedom and detention for indigent defendants who make up most of bondsmen’s clientele.

Over a four-year period that ended in mid-July, the department received 227 complaints against 43 bail-bond agents. But those figures may represent only a fraction of the actual grievances: People often do not know when a bondsman is violating their rights or where to file a complaint, experts say.

But the complaints have been alarming enough that the Insurance Department, which licenses bondsmen, is considering implementing new regulations intended to rein in agents who do things like place onerous restrictions on defendants, frequently surrender them, and deduct excessive fees from the cash collateral that clients are supposed to get back.

“Our current enforcement actions are more aggressive than in the past, but the regulations need to be enhanced to provide additional enforcement powers,” said Steven Nachman, the head of the department’s frauds and consumer services bureaus.

Justice Thomas A. Farber of State Supreme Court in Manhattan was so disturbed by the number of defendants that bondsmen were surrendering that he wrote a letter to the borough’s administrative judge within the past year expressing his concern.

“It is a process and an industry that seems to elude effective regulation,” said Timothy J. Murray, the executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a Washington organization that advocates bail reform. “So much of the business transaction is not subject to the public view, nor to much in the way of scrutiny.”

Bail is money that defendants give courts to hold in exchange for their freedom while their cases are pending. But thousands of defendants who lack the money to post bail turn to bondsmen, who charge a percentage of the bail amount and submit a bond to the court, promising to pay the bail if the defendant flees.

The bondsmen often take collateral — usually cash or property — that is supposed to be returned as long as a judge does not order the bail forfeited.

A more common complaint among defendants who pay the collateral in cash is that bondsmen keep some or all of it, deducting fees for unnecessary or invented services. Some bondsmen say the fees are for legitimate purposes like re-arresting a defendant. For defendants who have been rearrested, the effects can be devastating: unless the collateral was returned, they often do not have enough money to pay for a new bond. Read more->

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