When do Bondsman Stop Being Responsible?

When someone is arrested for a criminal offense, the person will be released on an appearance bond. The person who signs that bond is called a surety. By signing the bond and, often, posting collateral, that person is assuring the State of Georgia that the arrested person, the principal, will appear for court when called.

This is a serious commitment. It can have significant consequences if the principal is not doing what he or she is supposed to. In addition, the bond can operate as a lien against the surety's real property. That can become an issue if the person wishes to sell, finance or re-finance real property.

Because it is not common for a formal termination of the bond agreement to be issued, the question often arises whether the bond is still active. In addition, sometimes a surety decides they do not want to be responsible for a principal. In that situation, the surety wants to know how to come off of the bond.

Surety Wants to Call It Quits

Professional bondspersons have different rules. They sign a contract to provide a bond in exchange for payment. In general, they cannot come off a bond unless the principal is violating the bond contract in some way. This may be because the principal is not showing up for court, is not staying in communication, is moving without giving notice, or is not meeting their financial responsibilities.

Individual bondspersons can just decide to come off of the bond. Usually though, they do not come off of the bond unless there are problems.

Because the bond is a condition of the release of the principal, a surety coming off a bond has to surrender the principal to the responsible law enforcement officer. The principal will then have to secure a new bond in order to be released again. This process is surrendering the principal.

If court is in session and both the principal and the surety are present in court, the surety can come off the bond by surrendering the principal in open court. O.C.G.A. § 17-6-31(b).

If court is not in session, the surety will have to arrange for the principal to be brought to the Sheriff or responsible law enforcement agency to surrender the principal. O.C.G.A. § 17-6-31(a). This can be a difficult proposition, because most likely the principal does not want to be in custody. The surety must accomplish the surrender without breaching the peace or committing a criminal offense themselves. Occasionally, this is a peaceful process because the surety has some financial need to no longer be on the bond and an alternate surety is arranged. Then, it is just a matter of swapping paperwork.

Termination of a Bond by Operation of Law

There are a number of situations which will end a surety's responsibility on the bond.

Termination by Judgment

There are certain actions by the principal in court which will end the bond.

A plea of guilty or nolo contendere to a charge covered by the bond will terminate the bond. This plea would need to be accepted by the court.

A verdict of guilt by a jury, when the principal is present at that time, will end the bond.

A verdict of guilt by a judge after a bench trial, when the principal is present at that time, will end the bond.

An order of dead docket will terminate the bond and release the surety from liability.

Termination Prior to Judgment

There are a number of circumstances that will end the surety's liability prior to a judgment. Some of these are not necessarily consistent with being prior to entry of judgment, because some of them require a plea of some type. This may cover the event where the court orders that the person can continue to be on bond between the plea and the disposition of the case. Presumably, this would require some level of consent by the surety.

A deferred sentence will end the bond. This would like a drug offense conditional discharge or a First Offender Act sentence where there is a withheld adjudication. Notably, a deferred sentence would require a plea of guilty or nolo contendere.

A presentence investigation will end the bond. Again, a presentence investigation is not normally ordered until after a plea is entered.

A court-ordered pretrial intervention program will end the bond. So, a pretrial intervention program conducted only by the prosecutor without a court order would not immediately end the bond obligations but could end the obligation if the person successfully completes the program. Professional Bail Bonding v. Deal, 332 Ga. App. 857 (2015).

A court ordered educational and rehabilitation program will end the bond

The entry of an order for the principal to pay a fine will also end the bond. Again, this is normally preceded by a plea, unless the fine is accomplished by means of a bond forfeiture, which does not normally involve a surety.

A dead docket will end the bond.

The death of the principal will end the bond obligation. The death of a surety does not. Instead, the obligation becomes that of the surety's estate.

Discretion of the Court to Terminate the Surety's Responsibility

A court having jurisdiction over the bond can exercise its discretion to release a surety from liability under two circumstances

First, if the court finds that the principal used a false name when being bound over and then released by the arresting agency, the court can release the surety, unless the court finds that the surety knew or reasonably should have known that the principal used a false name.

Second, if the surety can show to the satisfaction of the court that the surety acted with due diligence and used all practical means to secure the attendance of the principal before the court, then the court can choose to release the surety from the bond.

Termination of Bond Liability by Time

Surety bonds basically have a statute of repose, or expiration date. For misdemeanors, this is one year; and for felonies, it is two years. If the charges are not tried within that time period, then any judgment on the bond is not enforceable and the surety is released from liability.

However, if the prosecution shows that the failure of the case to be tried was the fault of the principal, then the bond will continue to be enforceable.

Defense of Military Service

A judgment cannot be rendered against a surety for the non-appearance of the principal if the surety shows that he or she was prevented from returning the principal to the jurisdiction becaue the principal was on active military duty.

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