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Despite reform, unwritten rules run NC’s bail industry

In Vance County on a recent Tuesday, a bail bondsman faced off against the school board attorney: $15,000 was at stake.

Two eldery bailiffs manned the metal detector in the courthouse. Past a few squares of mousy carpet, a sign above two gray doors read “District Court #1.”

Bail is complicated. State laws, judges’ policies, District Attorneys’ office culture, and even the discretion of school boards influence the bail bonds industry and determine whether people can pay the price of their freedom. 

Despite a DA policy discouraging cash bail, the industry is very much alive in Durham and throughout the state. And dozens of people in that spacious courtroom were about to witness the complex system in action. 

Sekayi Brown, the bondsman, felt a little nervous. He sported a black polo shirt tucked into khakis, and his black mask was adorned with the NC Bail Agents Association (NCBAA) logo. Tattoos sprawled across the thick carob-colored biceps of this ex-Marine and former chef with a criminal justice degree. 

Brown drove the 45 minutes from his Durham office to ask the judge for his money back.

‘Too big of a risk’

In North Carolina, if someone misses court, a bondsman has five months to find them. If they don’t, they have to pay. But then they have another three years to recover the person and appeal to get their money back.

Laws like these shape bondsmen’s unwritten rules. For example, many bondsmen refuse to bail out immigrants out of fear that they could flee, Brown said, though that’s not his policy.

Brown said he’s often willing to take riskier bonds because he doubles as a bail enforcement agent, or bounty hunter. He has the tools and manpower to find people himself. 

But sometimes even recovering a person in the five-month window isn’t enough. If a person fails to appear twice, gets out on bond again, and misses court for any reason, the bondsman has no chance to get that money back. The person facing charges may be laid up in the hospital. It doesn’t matter. No exceptions. 

Brown used to write some of those bonds anyway. He usually doesn’t anymore. 

“That’s just too big of a risk for us to keep doing until they change that statute,” he said.

In his Durham office parking lot, black truck idling, one of Brown’s two cell phones rang with a case just like that.

“Brown Bail Bonding,” he answered. 

On the line was a woman who had missed court twice on misdemeanor charges for property damage: she said she broke a window in 2019. She had just learned about a warrant for her arrest and expected a $2,000 bond, though she hadn’t turned herself in yet. 

She works as a nurse and has kids. She has no time to sit in jail.

Brown told her he doesn’t usually write these anymore, but if she puts up $1,000 as collateral, which she’ll get back after the trial, plus the $300 nonrefundable fee, he’ll do it. If she misses court again, he’ll have the collateral to cover some of the loss. She agrees to his conditions.

After the call, Brown said he could tell that she’d talked to other bondsmen and heard one “no” after another. One more missed court date and the money’s lost for good, so they won’t do it.

“A lot of people are in jail for that reason,” Brown said. ”Right now, they have two [failures to appear] and no bondsman will get them out.” 

The debate over cash bail

Cash bail is an old system, one that burgeoned during the tough-on-crime era in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The NC Bail Agents Association formed in 1992 and has lobbied since then to reduce the risk of financial loss to bondsmen, motivating them to write more bonds.

Now the industry has power in the legislature, and community advocates want to see the end of bail. Groups like the NC Community Bail Fund of Durham, created in 2017, say the current money bail system criminalizes poverty. It forces people who can’t afford to post their own bail to pay a fee to a bondsman or plead guilty to go free quickly. The alternative — staying in jail, even for just a few days — could mean risking their jobs or custody of their children.

Without financial resources, people throughout North Carolina sit in jail for low level crimes, even though they’re not likely to flee or pose a danger to the community, experts say. That’s punishment for being poor, activists say, and they want the laws changed.

Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry ran on a platform of decreasing cash bail, and her office has a policy that discourages it. Assistant District Attorney Daniel Spiegel said they try to detain dangerous individuals on high bond and release everyone else.

This would mean, in an ideal world, there would be no small bonds in Durham County. No one would worry about paying their way out of jail for breaking a window. But it isn’t that easy. 

“It’s just not something that the law allows right now — to just decide release or no release, without money involved,” said Sarah Willets, spokesperson for the DA’s office.

The second-chance guy

Brown had seen some of this. He had noticed some big bonds getting bigger and small bonds getting smaller, with more people released on a written promise to appear. But he still has plenty of business.

Asked about a situation like that of the woman who called Brown, Spiegel said cases like hers aren’t easy.

“Where someone has a relatively minor offense, maybe a misdemeanor, and continually misses court, that can be very difficult,” he said.

Durham judges also have a bail policy that contradicts the DA’s. Theirs includes a bail schedule that recommends a dollar range by type of charge, something Deberry’s office hopes to leave behind.

Surprisingly, Brown doesn’t insist on bond’s necessity.

“Do I think that if you get arrested, you should have a bond? I don’t think you need to have a bond every time,” he said. “In my heart, I believe that most people will go to court. If given the option, they’ll go to court without having a secured bond.”

He’s also the second chance guy. With beliefs about innocence shaped by an internship fingerprinting sex offenders in California, to him, every charge is just an allegation until it’s tried. 

“I’m trusting that you’re gonna go to court. Right?” he said. “That’s really all I care about.”

A strict interpretation

Erwin Santo, the Vance County no-show, wasn’t easy to find after he missed court in May. Though Santo faced DWI charges in Vance, Durham was home. That’s why Brown got involved.

Back in the courtroom, Brown told the judge that he apprehended Santo twice. Once, he caught him at a nightclub but let him go because his ID claimed he was someone else. That was two days before the five-month deadline. 

Brown clasped his hands on the podium as he faced the judge. He had paid the court $15,000 and kept looking for Santo. He said he found him again 36 days later and took him to jail. 

Surrendered bail money goes to fund county schools, so the white lawyer with a swoop of gray hair, glasses and an orange tie, Jerry Stainback, stood near the judge to represent the school board.

Stainback asked the judge for a “strict interpretation” of the five-month statute.

“Motion denied,” said Judge Amanda Stevenson, glancing up. It all took less than two minutes. 

Shocked, Brown retreated back over the mousy carpet, past the bailiffs and metal detector. 

“She’s just like, no expression, just denied. Like, what?” he said outside in the car. “It just kind of left a bad taste in my mouth.”

Brown made $1,500 minus fees off this bond initially, but it’s a net loss. An “expensive lesson,” he said. In Durham County, he’d have gotten the money back without appearing before a judge — that’s the school board lawyer’s practice here.

Brown later said he plans to appeal the decision.

While small bonds are still around, the rules that discourage bondsmen from posting bail for certain people remain convoluted and widely unknown. Whether it’s two failures to appear  or the mercy of a school board lawyer, these rules determine who can use the industry to go free. Freedom paid for is freedom nonetheless.

“I may just say we’re not gonna write Vance County anymore. Because that was a big hit,” Brown said. “That was the biggest bond I ever paid in 16 years.”