Judge to bondsmen: Be aware Charges possible if clients roam free

An electronic monitor and electronic ankle bracelet

A Charleston judge vowed Thursday to penalize companies that don’t closely monitor and report criminal defendants’ whereabouts after they are released from jail with electronic trackers.

Attorneys for two firms argued that Circuit Judge Stephanie McDonald doesn’t have the authority to punish their clients, and that these companies shouldn’t be held responsible when suspects violate bail conditions.

The hearing, the third such proceeding this year, came after several people on house arrest were determined to be roaming freely. Bondsmen were said to be aware of the activity but chose to do nothing.

The 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office has pushed for better oversight in recent months after a murder suspect was reportedly spotted strolling through downtown Charleston. In early September, McDonald imposed a moratorium on placing more defendants on electronic monitoring while officials discuss what to do about the system she dubbed “a mess.”

McDonald didn’t say when she might rule, but she acknowledged that whatever decision she makes might require review by higher courts or might be considered for legislation in Columbia.

McDonald considered criminal charges, such as holding bondsmen in contempt, or seizing bail money. Bondsmen also could face license revocation.

The judge said something must be done to deter companies’ “willful” lax behavior.

“I might be totally wrong in what I do, but ... this is a problem from time to time, and somebody has got to fix it,” McDonald said. “I’ve got to put the ball in motion.”

At the center of the two cases discussed Thursday were bondswoman Frances Jenkins and monitoring- company owner Larry Ballard, who have found themselves embroiled with such controversy for years.

In 2006, a sex-assault suspect who had been released on Jenkins’ bond was implicated in an attack on a 16-year-old girl. He cut the Global Positioning System device, which Ballard’s company was tracking, and fled.

In one case discussed Thursday, Jenkins issued $150,000 bail for DeAngelo Mitchell. The North Charleston man, now 24, had been charged with drug trafficking and involuntary manslaughter after authorities said he passed cocaine to his brother as they sat handcuffed in a police cruiser in November 2011.

The brother ate the drug and later died of an overdose.

Mitchell was released this year and was told to stay on house arrest, but tracking maps displayed in court Thursday showed him throughout downtown Charleston, North Charleston and West Ashley during three days in July.

What Mitchell was doing wasn’t known, but the monitoring company suspected he might be out selling drugs, according to previous testimony.

Assistant Solicitor Jim Stack argued that Jenkins was made aware of the violations, but didn’t have him arrested. Stack asked the court to award the Solicitor’s Office about $3,000 in investigative costs and $75,000 of the bail money.

“He was making his weekly payments (to Jenkins),” Stack said. “If she was to put him back in jail, those payments would have dried up.”

The attorney for Jenkins and the company that guarantees her bonds, Palmetto Surety Corp., said state law doesn’t allow for any punishment, and that only Mitchell could be faulted.

“I know of no case ... which says that a bonding company is the insurer of the defendant’s behavior,” said attorney Robert T. Williams of Lexington. “It doesn’t exist.”

Also examined during the hearing was the case of 21-year-old Rashard Duncan, who was charged in an August 2010 home invasion in West Ashley.

When he was released on a $100,000 bail, Duncan was ordered to remain on house arrest, but documents produced Thursday showed him in several areas of West Ashley and Hollywood in early June.

The owner of the monitoring company, Ballard, testified that he didn’t have the addresses of Duncan’s employer or any other place Duncan was permitted to be.

Prosecutors cited a 1995 court ruling that requires companies to submit daily tracking reports to court clerks, and they said Ballard failed to do so.

“We’re on new ground here,” Ballard’s attorney, Keith McCarty of Charleston, told the judge. “I understand you can’t look at this and recognize there wasn’t a problem.”

After the hearing, the defense attorneys and their clients declined to comment further. Jenkins has expressed in the past that prosecutors were on a mission to make an example of her.

Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said in an interview that bail-bond companies’ lack of candor has hindered the court in determining the defendants’ whereabouts and activities.

“I think a message already has been sent through the moratorium,” Wilson said. “But nothing is going to have the impact that some sort of penalty will have.”