Victims' Rights Caucus

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Lax bail system helped Clemmons get out of jail
By Christine Willmsen, Seattle Times

While he sat in the Pierce County Jail last year, Maurice Clemmons was obsessed with two things: getting bailed out, then killing as many cops as possible.

With more than a decade behind bars in Arkansas and having worked briefly for a bail-bond company himself, 37-year-old Clemmons knew how to manipulate the judicial system.

With incessant phone calls, he cajoled friends, family and bail agents to orchestrate his release three times in seven months, making small down payments while offering shaky collateral.

Despite the customary 10 percent down, Clemmons got out one time on a $40,000 bond by making only a $1,700 payment. Another time, facing a $190,000 bond for a rash of felonies, including rape and assault, he won freedom with $8,000.

Six days later, he assassinated four Lakewood police officers at a Parkland coffee shop.

In the wake of the Clemmons case, state legislators, prosecutors and even bail-bond owners are demanding changes to the largely unregulated bail-bond business.

"There's no truth in bail," King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said. When defendants like Clemmons can bail out of jail with little upfront money, he said, "that forces us to guess what amount of bail will keep them in jail and keep them from escaping the system or committing further crimes. When we guess wrong, bad things can happen."

Competition among bail-bond companies is driving some to charge much less than the typical 10 percent of the bond, accept shaky collateral and credit-card payments, and allow suspects to pay their way to freedom through installment plans.

Some in the bail industry believe it's in dire need of standards.

"You can find a surety company and basically do business out of the back seat of a car [with] a cellphone," said Denny Behrend, co-owner of Lacey OMalley Bail Bonds in Seattle. "This is a business that requires regulation."

Getting a discount

On May 9, 2009, not long after a fight with his wife over his infidelity, Clemmons was in a fury, hurling rocks at neighboring houses and cars, then punching two deputies who came to investigate.

When he was arrested, Clemmons was fortunate it was the weekend; that meant he went through Pierce County's "booking bail," a system in which a defendant doesn't appear before a judge and instead the bond is set by a formula.

For the four felony charges, two for assault, two for malicious mischief, Clemmons had booking bail set at $40,000. His extensive criminal history, including five felony convictions from Arkansas, wasn't considered.

Desperate to get out, Clemmons turned to one of the largest bail companies in the West, Aladdin Bail Bonds, with offices throughout the state.

In Washington, anyone who's arrested, unless accused of aggravated murder, by law is eligible for bail. Once bail is set by a judge, a defendant can pay a bail-bond company a nonrefundable premium to be released from jail. The company may require collateral such as a car or house to make certain the defendant shows up in court.

If the defendant flees or fails to appear in court, the bail company tries to track the person down. If it fails, it must pay the court the total bail amount, but can keep the client's collateral.

Other states handle it differently. Oregon doesn't have bail-bond companies; it requires a defendant to pay 10 percent of the bond with cash or a credit card, collected by the county sheriff.

Bail-bond companies are a vital part of Washington's justice system. They help keep jail populations down and allow the accused to return to their jobs and families while awaiting trial.