Kilmartin, Craven clash over proposed law AG calls a ‘bailout’ for bail bondsmen

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Attorney General Peter Kilmartin is calling on Gov. Gina Raimondo to veto a bill that would cap the amount of money bail bondsmen are responsible for if a defendant skips out on a court date.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Robert Craven, a North Kingstown Democrat and potential 2018 candidate to succeed Kilmartin as the state’s top prosecutor. In an open letter to the governor, Kilmartin argues the legislation “sets up a system of inequities.”

“If mom or dad bails out their child for a felony, they will be responsible for potentially 100% of that bail, whereas as a bail bondsperson would only be responsible for 10%,” Kilmartin, a second-term Democrat, told Eyewitness News. “That’s an inherent inequity.”

When someone is charged with a crime and a judge sets bail, the defendant can post 10% of the bail in cash – with property as collateral for the remainder of the amount – to temporarily buy his or her freedom while awaiting trial. Alternatively, a defendant can call on a bail bondsman to post the money and property on his or her behalf in exchange for a fee.

Under current law, if the defendant fails to appear in court and the bail bondsman can’t track the individual down, the bondsman could be held liable for the full amount of bail.

The bill – which has passed both the House and Senate and is now awaiting Raimondo’s signature or veto – would cap the total liability for bail bondsmen at 10%, preventing them from being held liable for the entire amount.

Craven said the attorney general made the system unpredictable because, under Kilmartin’s administration, prosecutors have aggressively pursued some bail bondsmen who had truant clients.

“Many of them are in tough shape now,” Craven told Eyewitness News. “There have been some really large forfeitures that have been in a couple of hundred-thousand-dollar range, and what has happened is many have pulled back and said, ‘I’m not going to be writing big bails.'”

In 2014, the attorney general’s office successfully pursued a bail bondsman for seven bail forfeiture matters totaling $137,500. Craven said those kinds of judgments may lead to a shortage of bail bondsmen, leaving few options for those without the means to post bail.

“If they go out of business, the ACI fills up with people awaiting trial,” Craven said. “[The bill] would make their business more predictable.”

According to data from the Rhode Island Judiciary, there were 14 bail bondsmen licensed to work in the state in 2016, down from 16 in 2012. They are licensed by Rhode Island Superior Court officials.

“We try to work with the bail bondspeople – we give them time to find people, because that’s their job,” Kilmartin said. “That’s part of the responsibility they take on.”

Asked about the bill’s origins, Craven said he and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello were approached by former R.I. Superior Court Judge Henry Gemma about the issue. Craven said he and Mattiello had lunch with Gemma, who now lives in Florida, and a bail bondsmen friendly with the former judge to discuss their concerns.

“[The speaker] was invited to the same lunch I was invited to,” Craven said, adding Mattiello – who voted for the bill – was an early supporter. Both Craven and Mattiello are lawyers.

The House version of the bill passed in March on a 62-10 vote, with three lawmakers not voting. A Senate version of the bill sponsored by Smithfield Democrat Stephen Archambault passed last week, and the bill will soon be sent to the governor for her consideration.

David Ortiz, a spokesperson for Raimondo, said the bill has not yet been sent to her desk, and she will review it once it has been.

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook