June 14, 2012

Judges say Tarrant County DA's office will prepare final judgments in bond forfeitures

After weeks of wrangling and special meetings, Tarrant County's criminal court judges have shifted from the district clerk to the district attorney the duty of preparing final judgments in bond forfeiture cases.

Some of the judges say the new order is meant to conform better to Texas law. Judge Sharen Wilson of Criminal District Court No. 1 led the effort, saying bond forfeitures are a civil matter. That means she, as a judge, is not involved in setting parameters on negotiations between the district attorney's office and bail bondsmen.

"By law, civil judgments are to be prepared by the parties," she said.

District Attorney Joe Shannon released this statement in response to questions from the Star-Telegram about the new order: "The District Attorney's Office did not seek these additional duties, but it is our intention to try to accommodate the judges without the need to add additional staff."

District Clerk Tom Wilder said the change is unnecessary and "gives the appearance of retaliation."

At issue may be who is responsible for millions of dollars in felony bond forfeiture judgments that have gone uncollected in the last three years or so.

Wilson said the judges acted after a Star-Telegram series about bond forfeitures alerted them that they were being blamed for "something that they do not do -- settle bond forfeitures."

The articles reported that in the past three years, hundreds of bond forfeitures, for some of the worst criminal offenses, have been delayed, dismissed or settled for a fraction of the amount.

The district attorney's office had said the forfeitures were largely out of its hands. Prosecutors were quoted as saying that they used a settlement schedule as a guideline on how much a bondsman had to pay when a suspect jumps bail but that judges had the final say on bond forfeitures and could make decisions that deviated from the office's recommendations.

Wilder said that the schedule had been court-approved in 1996 and that his office had received no update. He provided a copy of the schedule signed in 1996 by most of the judges and filed with his office. Several criminal court and criminal district judges and some county criminal court judges signed, including criminal court judges still on the bench: Wilson and Judges Scott Wisch, Wayne Salvant and Everett Young.

Before the series, Wilson declined requests for interviews. But after it ran, she said that the district attorney's schedule was not her schedule and that she had not approved it.

On Friday, Wilson wrote in an e-mail response to Star-Telegram questions that the 1996 order had not been used by the judges for years and that "like all old documents, it was still in the clerk's file."

"Since over half of the signatories on the 1996 order are either deceased or no longer on the bench, or refused to sign, common sense dictates and the judges assumed it was apparent that the order was no longer in effect," she wrote.

In a bond forfeiture case, negotiation and settlement are "strictly between the parties to the lawsuit -- the district attorney and the bondsmen," Wilson wrote in another response.

The only criminal court judge who did not sign the new order, issued May 17, was Wisch, who presides over the 372nd District Court. He said he submitted a parallel order that is virtually identical. His version, he said, "more closely conforms to my reading of civil rule."

"Just because it has been a local practice, and possibly a courtesy to the parties [district attorney and bail bondsman], as the civil cases state 'parties,' it is proper that [the rules] be followed," Wisch said.

Wilder said Texas law doesn't require that the district attorney's office prepare the judgment. His office is responsible for keeping records for the criminal courts.

Texas Civil Procedure Rule 305 states, "Any party may prepare and submit a proposed judgment to the court for signature." Reference to the rule is included in the May 17 order.

The Star-Telegram series, which ran April 1-3, reported that forfeitures amounting to millions of dollars went uncollected because cases can drag on before settlements are finally made. The examination of absconder cases -- felony cases in which defendants have been on the loose for 270 days or more -- found that a number of bondsmen get off the hook from paying the full amount of a forfeited bond, even though state law says they shall pay it.

The data was compiled from county records in a review of more than 500 bond forfeiture cases that had exceeded the 270-day limit.

Under state law, bondsmen have 270 days to rearrest a felony defendant who has jumped bail. Before the end of that time, the district attorney, who represents the state in the matter, allows bondsmen to settle early at discounts. But afterward, state law requires bondsmen to pay the full forfeiture amount.

This year, Tarrant County criminal court judges, under a state law that permits them to do so, have passed along the duties of hearing bond forfeitures to the county's three magistrates. But Wilson has continued to hear her bond forfeiture cases and will continue to do so, as well as cases in Judge Mollee Westfall's 371st District Court.

www.star-telegram.com

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