Testimony of the Division of Criminal Justice

State's Attorney Kevin D. Lawlor
Judicial District of Ansonia-Milford

In Support of:

S.B. NO. 28: An Act Concerning Surety Bail Bond Agents and Professional Bondsmen

Joint Committee on Insurance and Real Estate
February 8, 2011

First of all I want to thank the members of the committee for the invitation to speak to you on this important topic. I am the State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Ansonia-Milford and my testimony today is on behalf of the Division of Criminal Justice. My presentation this morning will focus on some of the shortcomings in our criminal justice system which my office uncovered as we investigated the murder of Shengyl Rasim on January 17, 2010. This testimony is in support of SB 28.

As background, on January 17, 2010, Selami Ozdemir brutally shot his young wife, Shengyl Rasim, as she held her crying infant in her arms and their young son slept in the next room. During the prior 4 months, Mr. Ozdemir was arrested by the West Haven Police Department on two separate occasions for domestic violence offenses involving his wife. On both occasions, Mr. Ozdemir was bonded out by a bail bondsman. Shortly after his release on his second arrest, Ozdemir returned to the home and armed with a friends semi-automatic handgun, shot her multiple times. He then turned the gun on himself. Mr. Ozdemir died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

My office’s investigation focused on determining the exact chain of events leading up to the murder and also to identify gaps in the system that might have prevented the tragedy.  My office identified several issues in this case. The one I will focus on this morning is the bail bondsman’s ability to bond out Mr. Ozdemir without obtaining any monetary compensation from the accused.

A troubling factual allegation in this matter involves the ability of Mr. Ozdemir’s bail bondsman to obtain his release without receiving any payment whatsoever.  Normally, a professional bondsman obtains a premium of between 7% and 10% of the bond posted in exchange for a suspect’s release. Under the United States Constitution, bail must be reasonable and is designed to assure a defendant’s future appearance in court. Police and the courts are required by statute to take a number of factors into consideration when determining the amount of bond to be set in any particular case including reasonably assuring the safety of other persons involved in the case, see C.G.S. §54-64a(2). Currently, Connecticut state law, C.G.S. §29-151 does not prevent a professional bondsman from posting a bond for an arrestee and not taking any fee. This statute merely provides a maximum allowable percentage fee but not a minimum required fee. Theoretically, an arrestee could obtain his release on a one million dollar bond without providing any money to anyone if a bondsman is willing to post the bond for free. This is currently a business decision made by a private party who has no responsibility to weigh the significant public safety risks associated with his decision. The bondsman is also not currently required to immediately fill out any paperwork outlining the contractual relationship between the parties.

In the Ozdemir case, police set a $25,000.00 bond based on the seriousness of the charges, the repeated activity against the victim, the defendant’s current criminal record and other factors. Under normal circumstances, the defendant would have had to raise $2500.00 to pay the bondsman prior to his release or provide $25,000 cash himself to the police. 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.

The Insurance Department in consultation with the Division of Criminal Justice introduced legislation this past legislative session specific to bail bond industry reform. This proposed legislation failed on the last day of the General Assembly session.

Before the committee today is SB 28 which would:

  1. Prohibit an agent from executing a bail bond unless they charge the premium rate the insurer filed with the insurance department;
  2. Require a bail bond agent to certify under oath that the premium charged did not differ from that which is filed and approved by the insurance department;
  3. Allow a bail bond agent to enter into premium financing arrangements to allow payment plans for defendants with a minimum down payment of 35%, with payment in full due within 15 months;
  4. Require surety companies to conduct audits of bail bond agents to ensure that they receive full payment when posting bail bonds; and,
  5. Require surety companies to certify the integrity of the bail bond agents and to assume full responsibility for the acts and conduct of their appointed agents.

The bill also establishes standards for solicitation, reporting requirements and accounting for premiums along with establishing uniform standards of record retention to ensure that the Insurance Department has access to tangible records when conducting market conduct exams of bail bond agents.

In addition, the bill includes a funding mechanism by assessing bail bond agents an annual fee of $450.00 that would enable the department to have adequate resources to conduct market conduct examinations of the bail bond industry.

The Division agrees with the majority of these reforms. In several areas we would recommend that the law go farther. Specifically:

  • Sec. 3(b) of the bill states that a surety bail bond agent who files a false certification on the premium rate charged shall only have "administrative action" taken against him or her. It should also specify that a false certification constitutes a violation of CGS Sec 53a-157b False Statement 2d Degree. If intentional, the false statement certainly could be intended to mislead a public servant i.e.: the Insurance Commissioner
  • Section 4 allows for "premium financing arrangements". These arrangements allow bail bondsmen to take promissory notes on bonds fees. I think these arrangements are unwise, hard to enforce and ripe for abuse. If you have 15 months to pay off the fee and 75 days after that before a bondsman has to report non-payment the case could be almost 18 months old before the bill comes due. What happens if the case is disposed of prior to that time period? Who is watching to make sure these time tables are enforced once the case is disposed? This appears to be very labor intensive and not really workable at an administrative level. There have been several notable cases in the past year where individuals were released on bond where no bond was posted but rather promises of future payment were made. As I outlined above, these arrangements have led to tragic results all too often. Why not just require full payment up front?
  • The Division also believes there should be a limited prohibition on accepting cash from a principal or indemnitor. It would certainly be easier to trace and verify what percentage was paid as a fee on a bond if the transaction was by check, money order or credit card. Over my career I have observed cash transactions in the clerk's office where a large bag of money is handed over from a family member of an accused to a bondsman. It’s unseemly at best and at worst leaves open a significant chance for fraud. Perhaps a rule where fees for bonds over a certain amount ($10,000) must be by check, money order or credit card would limit the possibility of fraud while still allowing bondsman to accept cash on less serious cases for example DUI, Possession of Narcotics in small amounts or Assault 3rd degree.

These common sense reforms would help prevent arrestees in domestic violence cases from literally getting a “Get out of jail free” card and almost instantly re-offending against unsuspecting victims or fleeing the jurisdiction.

Our current system, where an individual can post only a nominal amount and be released on bond has had an unexpected consequence: bail inflation. This problem has created a system where no one knows how much a person needs to post to be released from pre-trial incarceration. Prosecutors, Judges and Bail Commissioners increase the recommended amounts in some cases to attempt to guard against this problem. Simply put, right now the numbers are not real, it’s like monopoly money. Just this past month, in my court, an individual failed to appear on a serious armed robbery. At his arraignment, it was pointed out it was a dangerous offense and he was a serious risk of flight because he was a Polish born legal alien. The Judge set a $200,000 bond. Last week, when he failed to appear for court we found out that his family only had to post $2000 or 1% of his bond to secure his release.

Thank you for allowing me to speak to you and I would be happy to answer any questions that committee members may have.