Bail bond industry thrust into spotlight after St. Petersburg shooting incident

One criticism of the bail bond industry is that it grants bond agents too much power over those who skip bail.  LARA CERRI   |   Times
One criticism of the bail bond industry is that it grants bond agents too much power over those who skip bail. LARA CERRI | Times
Published November 14 2015
Updated November 14 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — The botched capture of a bail-jumper in a McDonald's drive-through lane on Wednesday has thrust the bail bond industry into the spotlight.

Bail bond agents got their man — but also shot a woman in the head, according to St. Petersburg police. Vonceia Welch, 29, was responsive and in stable condition on Friday.

She wasn't the target, however. She was just in the same car as the fugitive: Deveon Stokes, 26, who had skipped out on his five-figure bail on a charge of possession of cocaine.

The largest law enforcement agencies in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties say they have a cordial, working relationship with bail bond agencies in the Tampa Bay area.

They play a crucial role in the criminal justice system, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

"But at the same time, I do think that the bondsmen need to recognize their limits," Gual­tieri said. "They're not police officers, they're not law enforcement officers. They need to be careful about what they do and how they do it."

The bail bond industry has vociferous critics, however.

Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein sees a broken system, one that he says favors the wealthy who can easily make bail; traps in jail those who cannot afford the cost of freedom; and grants bond agents too much power over those who skip bail.

"You realize that what we are allowing bondsmen to do is nothing short of an equation for disaster," Finkelstein said. "I know bondsmen, I know lots of bondsmen, some of them are good people.

"Most of them are closer to criminals."

When Armando Roche teaches his students about the bail bond trade, he runs through the list of "don'ts": Don't make up your own rules. Don't misuse the collateral you collect. Don't wave a gun in somebody's face.

Roche, a Tampa bail bondsman and past president of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States, said he encourages his students not to carry a weapon at all when arresting someone — unless it's for their own protection.

"It's part of the risk you take," Roche said.

Unlike a law enforcement officer, bail bond agents are not required to attend the police academy or take training courses in how to handle firearms. When it comes to carrying a weapon, they have no more authority than an average citizen.

They are, however, required to take a 120-hour in-class course from a state-certified bail bond agent with more than 10 years' experience.

After that, an aspiring agent must work as a temporary agent with a licensed agency for 12 months before taking one final exam issued by the Florida Division of Agent and Agency Services. They also must have a felony-free record and take 14 hours of continuing education every two years.

Once they are licensed, bail bond agents have arrest authority over people who have breached contracts to show up in court after a bail bond agency has bailed them out of jail.

"It's kind of an unusual business," Roche said. "They sign something that says you have the right to arrest me, but if you arrest them, then you have to figure out a way to do it in a manner that nobody will get hurt and without any authority to use a weapon."

St. Petersburg police said that's not how Wednesday's takedown unfolded:

Kyle's Kwik Bail Bonds tracked Stokes to a white sedan that drove to the McDonald's at 4595 34th St. S. Stokes was in back of the sedan. Police said two vehicles driven by bail bond agents boxed in the sedan in the drive-through and attempted to arrest Stokes at gunpoint.

The trapped car lurched forward. Bail bond agent Darrell Ingram, 45, told police he "accidentally" fired his .40-caliber Glock into the car. In the front passenger seat, Welch was shot in the head and hand.

Two men were arrested: Stokes and the driver, Joshua Allonso Malone, 26, who was arrested on unrelated charges from an Oct. 19 shooting incident.

St. Petersburg detectives are still investigating the incident. The Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney's Office will decide whether to charge any of the bail bond agents involved.

Finkelstein doesn't think the licensing process is rigorous enough to maintain quality control. Agents don't undergo any evaluations. Bond agents "can be sociopaths, but as long as they have a license," he said, they can arrest people who have skipped out on court.

Timothy Murray, the director emeritus of the Pretrial Justice Institute, called Wednesday's shooting "tragically emblematic of how broken the cash bail bond system is."

The system is supposed to guarantee someone who has made bail shows up to court. But it doesn't work, he said, otherwise bond agents wouldn't have anyone to chase — like at McDonald's.

"The very thing that was supposed to assure his appearance — cash on the table — he didn't do it," he said.

But what Murray says the system does do is keep poor, low-level offenders trapped in jail while awaiting trial. Those with access to money, however, have a way out — even when facing more serious charges.

Murray, who spent 14 years working in pretrial services in Miami-Dade County, said Florida has a history of using a money bond system, as do other states.

"Once you pull the covers off, you see it's not only an unsustainable system," he said, "it simply doesn't work to protect the innocent, it doesn't work to protect the court process."

There's a growing movement to get rid of the system, he said. Murray and other critics of the bail bond industry would rather see a system that pays attention to risk factors — especially nonviolent offenses — when deciding which offenders to release from jail.

Times staff writer Kathryn Varn and news researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.