The following article is reprinted with permission from the May 2, 2011, issue of the Connecticut Law Tribune. © Copyright 2011. ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Duplication without permission is prohibited.

Murder Revealed Flaw In Bonding System

State’s attorney wants to end practice of ‘undercutting’

Back in January 2010, West Haven mother Shengyl Rasim was fatally shot while holding her crying baby, with her young son asleep nearby. Investigators for Ansonia/Milford State’s Attorney Kevin Lawlor didn’t have to look far to find their suspect. The husband, Selami Ozdemir, had a history of being arrested for domestic violence by West Haven police. As he had before, Ozdemir got bonded out by a bail bondsman. This time he borrowed a handgun, shot his wife repeatedly, and then killed himself.

Lawlor’s investigative team found Ozdemir got a deep discount on his bail bond through a practice known as undercutting. Traditionally, defendants have had to fork over 10 percent of their bail cost, but some bail bondsmen now allow discounts and time payments, making it easier for the accused to return to the street. Current Connecticut law doesn’t have any lower limit on bond discounting, and a bondsman could theoretically post a bond for an arrestee for nothing.

In the Rasim case, "His ability to immediately be released prevented any cooling off period and allowed him to immediately leave the police department and obtain the handgun used in this homicide," Lawlor told the state Domestic Violence Task Force recently. Last year, a reform bill backed by state’s attorneys died without a vote. This year, thee are reform bills both the House and Senate. Lawlor spoke recently with Senior Writer Thomas B. Scheffey.

LAW TRIBUNE: What would you ideally like to see come out of this legislature?

KEVIN LAWLOR: I would like a clear-cut rule, what everyone thought was the rule prior to the investigation into the Rasim homicide. In order to get out, you have to pay ten percent, or whatever percentage people want to put on it, but that you have to pay that up front in order to get out. That bondsmen should be required to maintain the proper paperwork that allows whoever the regulator is — the [state] Insurance Department, the state police, whomever – to monitor that. And whomever the enforcement agency is, that they’re given the tools and the personnel to effectively enforce the rules. If that is done, and everyone knows what the rules are, I think you’ll actually see bond levels [set by judges] come down. Right now we have bonding inflation. Nobody knows what the rules are.

LAW TRIBUNE: Judges have to guess?

LAWLOR: If there’s a bondsman on the front steps of the courthouse that’s going to take this guy out for two percent, instead of making it a $50,000 bond, [as a judge] I have to make it a $200,000 bond, in order to make two percent have a similar weight. Since no one knows what the rule is, whether the rules are being enforced, or if anybody’s abiding by the rule, then you tend to inflate the numbers.

LAW TRIBUNE: Isn’t discounting bad business?

LAWLOR: These guys work on volume. They’d rather have 50 people paying them something every week – at least there’s some money coming in. If the rule is ten percent, and a guy says I’ll take you out for six, and another says four, another takes two – there’s no one who complains. The defendant isn’t going to be released from prison on two percent and say, `Wow, that was illegal what he just did. I’m going to go and complain.’ [The bail bondsman] doesn’t have to show any paperwork to show what he paid, and he can pay cash. So there’s no way for the Insurance Department to audit their books. It’s unfair to the bondsmen who want to play by the rules, because they’ll be driven out of business.

LAW TRIBUNE: Wouldn’t requiring a 10 percent payment fall most heavily on those who are least able to make bail?

LAWLOR: This isn’t a poor versus rich argument. This is an argument of dangerous versus not dangerous. When judges are setting bonds, one of the things they have to take into account is the threat to public safety and the threat to any possible victim. If that risk is very high, then obviously the bond is increased. The problem with bailbondsmen is that they don’t have the public safety concern. For them, bonding someone out is just a business decision. Is this person worth the risk to me of reappearing in court? That’s the only decision. What they do has significant public safety implications.

LAW TRIBUNE: A bail bonds person isn’t an officer of the court, right?

LAWLOR: No, they’re just a business person. If they’re willing to take the amount you have left on your Visa card, you’re walking out the door. In domestic violence situations, one of the hardest things we have to deal with on a daily basis is getting victims to cooperate when they say, why am I going to file a written statement saying he did this to me, when I know he’s going to be back here in 12 hours?

LAW TRIBUNE: Who enforces Connecticut’s bail bonding system?

LAWLOR: The Insurance Department [has about] 1.3 people budgeted to enforce this. There are two different classes of bail bondsmen. There are the classic bail bondsmen who do it themselves, and put up their own money. And then there are groups who basically work for insurance companies.

LAW TRIBUNE: Under a proposed bill this year, a bondsman could charge a minimum 10 percent bail fee, with the arrestee allowed to initially put down 35 percent of that, and repay the entire amount within 14 months.

LAWLOR: From my perspective, there’s no way to enforce the procedures they’ve set out to insure that people pay these "premium finance arrangements." They say that you have to take basically a third up front, and then can enter into an agreement that allows up to fourteen months to pay off the remaining 67 percent, and if you have not paid it off within that time frame, you’re required to use reasonable efforts to obtain a judgment against the party. At that point, what happens when you don’t pay? And who’s going to watch 14 to 17 months down the road to make sure that you’ve filed your suit. And once you file your suit [to collect civilly], are you allowed to settle for less than the claim? And what is the Insurance Department supposed to do with the 1.3 people they’re budget to enforce this?

MAY 2, 2011