Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner recently instructed his legal department to explore the possibility of implementing a city ordinance compelling bondsmen to charge defendants a minimum down payment of 10 percent of bond, and in February the county’s commissioners court passed a resolution urging the Harris County Bail Bond Board (HCBBB) to impose a similar rule.
The 11-member HCBBB took up the proposal Wednesday, but after taking public testimony and discussing the issue in a closed executive session, only eight members were on hand to vote, four of whom voted to approve the new rule, while two opposed and two abstained.
Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) urged the HCBBB to approve the new rule, but several attorneys on hand warned that the board did not have authority to impose new rules and that the proposal amounted to “price-fixing.”
Citing state law code and several other examples from case law, Ken Good of the Professional Bondsmen of Texas said, “I believe this local rule would violate separation of powers because you’re adding a condition on the bond that the judge has not required, and also because you’re acting as the Texas legislature. If you want to set what we should charge, that should be done if you can, at the Texas legislature not here.”
Good also explained to The Texan that bail bond boards are authorized by the state to issue licenses and conduct hearings on complaints, but state law does not explicitly give such boards authority to regulate the industry. He also noted that some of the bail bond license agencies were insurance companies and regulated by the Department of Insurance.
“The Texas legislature amended the insurance code probably 20 years ago to say we’re not going to regulate what an insurance company charges for a criminal appearance bond.”
Good and other bond company representatives on hand also suggested the measure amounted to “price-fixing,” which is expressly prohibited in state law.
He added that bondsmen have “the lowest failure to appear rate of any release mechanism.”
“If you don’t care whether people come to court, then you don’t need us.”
Attorney Roger Moore told the board that there was nothing new about bondsmen offering defendants payment plans.
“What is new is the ODonnell case in Harris County, and the result of the revolving door practice that has emerged on the misdemeanor side,” said Moore.
After Democrats took control of the county after the 2018 election, they settled the ODonnell federal lawsuit and ended bail for most misdemeanor cases. Democrat judges who took over felony courts have also implemented more lenient bail practices, sometimes releasing violent defendants on multiple bonds and even awarding bonds to suspects charged with capital murder.
Explaining that judges set bonds and establish conditions for release, Moore emphasized that the only duty of bondsmen is to ensure a defendant will appear in court again. If the defendant does not appear, the bondsman must then pay the state the full amount of the bond.
In response to a question from HCBBB interim chair Judge Angela Rodriguez, Moore said no other Texas county had attempted to impose rules for bond conditions.
Shaun Burns, a 20-year bondsman, also expressed frustration over the targeting of the bond industry.
“I find it very interesting that we’re having this conversation because when the bail reform conversation began, the narrative that was told over and over again is that bondsmen catered to the rich and leave poor people in jail,” Burns told the board. “Now we’ve come full circle and here we are saying we are no longer able to negotiate with the poor, we can only bond out those with money.”
Although Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, a member of the HCBBB board, said most bondsmen were requiring defendants to pay 8 to 10 percent down, there were a few who only charged 2 percent and allowed defendants to make payments.
Gonzalez voted for the new rule but cautioned that the proposed regulation was a “red herring”, and that the public should “manage expectations.”
“There’s a lot of issues that probably need to be addressed in the entire criminal justice system,” said Gonzalez. “Not only the posting of the bond and how much that is, that’s very critical. But we also need a lot of other improvements in the entire process in terms of managing risk.”
Paul Castro, whose son David was killed in a road rage incident in 2021, urged the HCBBB to adopt the 10 percent rule. Suspect Gerald Williams was arrested and charged with David’s murder, but although he had a previous conviction for aggravated robbery, Judge Ana Martinez of the 179th Criminal District Court ordered release on a bond of $350,000. The bondsman allegedly allowed Williams to make a 2 percent down payment.
Hidalgo urged the board not to table the motion but to vote immediately, saying, “We’re facing a gun violence epidemic not just in Harris County particularly, in Texas, but around the nation and it’s an urgent issue.”
Although she acknowledged not all bondsmen offered low down payments, Hidalgo said bondsmen were undercutting judges who set high bond amounts and that judges were being made “scapegoats” for high crime.
Andy Kahan of Crime Stoppers Houston reminded HCBBB that a proposed constitutional amendment to give judges discretion to deny bond to those charged with murder had failed in last year’s state legislative session. Harris County had sent representatives to testify in opposition to bail reform measures at the state capitol last year.
“If, next session when I presume that bill will be up again, I hope that this board, and I hope that everybody here will support the efforts to give judges discretion.”
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years; I’ve never seen public safety become so partisan in my life,” added Kahan.
The HCBBB includes Hidalgo, Gonzalez, Rodriguez, District Attorney Kim Ogg, County Treasurer Dylan Osborne, District Clerk Marilyn Burgess, Judges Shannon Baldwin, Amy Martin, Elaine Marshall, attorney Troy Mckinney, and bail bond representative Mario Garza.
Both Rodriguez and a representative from the district attorney’s office abstained from the HCBBB vote, while McKinney and Garza voted no. Representatives for Hidalgo and Burgess joined Gonzalez and Osborne in voting yes, but Martin, Baldwin, and Marshall were absent.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.