Pinellas bail bond fee leads to lawsuit
By ANITA KUMAR
© St. Petersburg Times,
CLEARWATER -- Pinellas County recently stopped charging thousands of dollars in extra fees each year to companies that post bail for criminal defendants.
That didn't come quick enough for the businesses.
Bail bond companies fed up with the high cost of doing business in Pinellas sued the county for illegally charging them fees that no other group or individual posting a bond has to pay.
"It's just like robbing us," said Al Estes Sr., who has owned a bail bond company since 1964. "It's just got to the point where these people don't know where to stop."
The 65 companies licensed to do bail bond business in Pinellas County want the county to be forced to permanently stop administering the fee and return the money it collected in the last decade.
It is unclear how much money that is, but it likely totals hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps even millions, since the fee was initiated in 1991.
The county did stop charging the fee -- at least temporarily -- in April after an appellate court with jurisdiction over Pinellas ruled in a similar case that Polk County was illegally collecting fees.
That decision by the 2nd District Court may cause heartburn for Pinellas County officials who count on the income each year and, most likely, would not have set aside any money in the budget for reimbursements.
County officials declined to comment this week, saying they could not talk about pending litigation. The county attorney's office did confirm, however, that the fees were discontinued in April.
The Pinellas County Bail Bond Association filed the lawsuit in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court against the County Commission, Sheriff Everett Rice and Clerk of the Circuit Court Karleen DeBlaker. It filed a second suit against DeBlaker that claimed her office refuses to turn over public records that show how much money was collected and how it was spent.
Judy Stines, association president, said companies always had thought the fee was illegal but did not challenge it until now because they worried about fighting a judicial system within which they work.
"You never want to rock the boat," said Stines, owner of Clearwater Bonding Agency, a 54-year-old business on Roosevelt Boulevard. "But we have to do it because it's illegal and it's time."
When a criminal defendant out on bail fails to show up in court, his bond is forfeited. If he returns later, whoever posted the bail can get some or all of the money back.
Before April, the clerk's office had been charging bail bond companies $40 each time that happened -- several times a day, every day of the year. The Sheriff's Office also charged $17 an hour per deputy to transport a defendant back to Pinellas.
In a letter sent to Stines in October, senior county attorney Michael Zas said the county wanted to increase the fees to as much as $197 per case and $19.75 an hour for deputies. Zas declined to comment.
The bail bond companies dispute both charges, but the 2nd District Court of Appeals decision states that the only costs that can be charged are "those incurred by the sheriff's office in actually returning the defendant from the county of arrest to the county of jurisdiction."
A similar lawsuit is pending in Orange County, Stines said. It has not been challenged in Pasco County, though, where that county initiated the fee about four years ago, she said.
The association would like to move the case to another circuit, such as Hillsborough, where the fees have never been charged. Already, one Pinellas-Pasco judge assigned to the case has recused himself because he was one of the many judges over the years to sign off on returning bonds.
"We're taxpayers, property owners and business owners, and we're helping people," Stines said. "We have been severely abused."
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