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Friday, August 15, 2008

Federal Court Says Judges Can Disqualify Bondsmen

Back in 2006, I reported a federal lawsuit filed by several bondsmen against the two judges, a prosecutor, two bondsmen and law enforcement in southeast Missouri. Here is some background on the suit:

Tom Peak, owner of Peak Bail Bonds of Jefferson City, and three of his agents filed a lawsuit in US District Court against two Missouri presiding circuit judges, the Honorable Mark Richardson of the 36th Judicial Circuit and the Honorable Fred Copeland of the 34th Judicial Circuit. Also named were state troopers Buddy Cooper and Jeff Heath, Sheriff Mark Dobbs of Butler County, New Madrid County Prosecuting Attorney Lewis Recker, and Phillip Childress and Craig Meador of Childress Bail Bonds of Poplar Bluff, MO.

Plaintiffs Peak, Glenn Beazley of Jefferson City, Bobby Martin of Marston, and John Montgomery of Poplar Bluff, alleged in a seven count complaint; two counts of conspiracy, denial of due process, tortuous interference, slander, libel, and injurious falsehood. The complaint alleged that Peak and his agents were unfairly denied the right to conduct bail bond business in the courts’ jurisdictions based partly upon a complaint received by competitor Childress. The suit alleged that Richardson, Copeland, Dobbs, Recker, Cooper and Heath used the power and prestige of their positions to investigate and discredit plaintiffs without authority. The complaint also alleged that the injurious statements regarding Martin and Montgomery were false and harmful, and defendants intended the harm or should have recognized that harm was likely as a result of the false statements.

In December 2007, all the defendants except Judge Copeland and Judge Richardson were dismissed from the lawsuit. All of the counts were dismissed, except for one, which alleged denial of due process rights. Specifically the one remaining count of the complaint was:

“Defendants failed to use proper procedure and were recklessly indifferent to the civil rights of Plaintiffs in the following manners: a) No Missouri statute, regulation or rule provides Defendants Richardson and Copeland the authority to conduct investigations into any activities of Bail Bond Agents, revoke the license of any Bail Bond Agent, or otherwise limit the bond activity of any bail Bond Agent. Conducting investigations into the alleged activities of Plaintiff and ‘revoking’ the licenses of Plaintiffs Martin and Montgomery was outside the scope of their authority. Defendants disregard of established procedure for investigation activities into Bond Agents and acting outside of the scope of their own authority constitutes deliberate indifference to the civil rights of Plaintiffs, established under the laws of the State of Missouri.”

Both parties moved for summary judgment and here is some of what the federal court said:

1) Considering the relevant statutes, the Missouri Supreme Court Rules, and the trial court's obligation to enforce those rules, it becomes apparent that Defendants are permitted, if not required, to determine whether bail bond agents writing bonds in their courts are reputable. (Emphasis added)
2)….The Court finds that revoking a bail bond agent's privilege to write bail bonds in a judge's court or circuit is a judicial action, i.e., an act taken in the judge's judicial capacity.
3) The clear weight of authority gives Missouri circuit judges jurisdiction to determine whether a particular surety can write bonds in that judge's circuit. A judge's alleged failure to do so without an investigation into the underlying reasons or a judge's failure to give any pre- or post-revocation procedural protections to the revoked agent does not deprive that judge of jurisdiction over bail bond approval or rejection. At worst, Defendants acted in excess of their jurisdiction; and this is insufficient to deprive them of judicial immunity.

Bail bond agents have routinely referred RSMO 374.759.3, which reads, “All Missouri licensed bail bond agents or licensed general agents shall be qualified, without further requirements, in all jurisdictions of this state, as provided in rules promulgated by the supreme court of Missouri and not by any circuit court rule.” (Emphasis by court) Bondsmen have argued that this statute establishes the agents’ authority to work and a judge cannot interfere with that. The federal court said that although the state bail bond statutes do, in fact, refer to Missouri Supreme Court Rules, the reference is not in the context of amending or annulling the rules but is in giving deference to the rules. Additionally, the court said it is the trial court's duty to enforce Missouri Supreme Court Rules.

The court's entire ruling here.
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