Being arrested and put in jail pending a court trial can be a traumatic, chaotic, confusing experience. Fortunately, you may not actually have sit in that cell for very long, thanks to a U.S. legal mechanism known as posting bail. But you don't want to have to take a crash course in how to pursue this recourse while you're still reeling from the events that put you in custody, so here are three basic aspects of bail that everyone should know beforehand -- just in case.
1. Bail Bonds Can Get You Out of Jail Quickly and (Relatively) Affordably
While the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the setting of "excessive" bail amounts, the amounts set can still be quite high, and many individuals might languish in jail if they didn't have the option of bail bonds. A bail bond is a form of security, frequently purchased from a private bond company for a set percentage of the total bail amount. The bonding agency then arranges for the prisoner's release, presenting the bond as a guarantee that you will appear in court on the appointed date.
If this sounds too good to be true, bear in mind that you absolutely must actually make that court date. If you choose to disappear, the bond company can file a lawsuit against you, take your property or other assets, or even send a bounty hunter after you to collect the balance of the bail money you owe them.
It's worth noting that private bail bonds aren't available in some states. If this is true for your state, then you may need to get a group of three or more people to sign a signature bond on your behalf. This bond serves as a voucher that can get you out of jail until your court date. If you fail to honor your court date in this situation, however, the people who vouched for you are now liable for the entire bail amount.
2. Your State Regulates the Premium Amount
When choosing a bail bondsman, it's understandable that you might want one that promises a discounted or unusually low premium rate. Be aware, however, that in reality these agents don't usually have much wiggle room for setting a price, mainly because the state government has control over the range of acceptable deposit amounts. If one bail bonds provider is promising some outrageous discount compared to what others are quoting, proceed with caution -- you may find that those tempting promises were nothing more than promises, and you're stuck with paying a standard premium after all.
So what qualifies as a "standard" bail bond premium? The rules vary from state to state. 10 percent of the bail bond is a fairly typical mandated amount in many states. Georgia stipulates 15 percent or $50, whichever is greater, while Florida requires a minimum deposit rate of 6.5 percent. Connecticut stipulates different premium guidelines based on the price range of the bond. Some states have no maximum deposit limit at all. Your law enforcement agency can inform you of the correct bail bond premium requirements for your state.
3. You Don't Always Have to Pay (at Least Not in Cash)
If you don't have tons of cash stuffing your bank account at the time of your arrest -- or you can't even afford a bail bond -- don't panic. Bail can certainly be paid in cash (or by check), but there may also be other payment methods that the court will accept. For instance, you might be allowed to put up property valued at the amount of the bail. Your bondsman might accept such alternatives as well. A family member or friend can also pay the bail amount for you. The advantage of putting up the entire amount is that, in most cases, you'll get the entire amount back once you appear at your court date. (Ensuring that you'll appear is the entire point of bail, after all.) Bail bonds are the cheapest solution in the short term because you only have to pay the deposit, but you won't get that amount back.
Under the right circumstances, you may not have to put up any bail at all. For instance, if you have a sterling reputation, with no criminal record, and agree in writing to show up for your appointed court date, the judge might be willing to release you "on your own recognizance."
Once you're armed with a basic understanding of how bail works in your state, you can act quickly and calmly to free yourself or a loved one from jail. Hopefully you'll never have to use this information -- but it's better to know it and not need it than to need it and not know it!