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Don't skip out on estreatments

Whether in real life or watching a court drama on television, it is commonplace to see a judge setting bail for someone awaiting trial. In fact, the South Carolina Constitution guarantees the right to bail pending trial to everyone, except in cases involving the death penalty or the possibility of a sentence of life in prison. All individuals awaiting trial in municipal court are eligible to be released on bond because of the court's limited jurisdiction,

But what happens if a defendant defaults on his bond and does not appear in court? Magistrates and municipal judges may "estreat" bonds in cases that occur in their jurisdiction up to the maximum amount of the fine that could be charged for the offense(s). SC Code of Laws, Section 38-53-70.

An estreatment means the court is holding the bail bondsman and the party he represents responsible for the financial commitment of the bonds, said Kim Poulin, vice president of the Municipal Court Administration Association of SC. Poulin, who is the clerk of court for the City of Abbeville, explained that each bond has an amount based on the offense, ranging from $237.50 for driving without a license to approximately $10,000 for multiple charges like a DUI or operating a vehicle uninsured.

The court must follow a very specific process to pursue estreatments, said Willie Seawright, compliance coordinator for the SC Department of Insurance.

If the defendant fails to appear when summoned for his hearing, the court must issue a bench warrant. Section 38-53-70 Within seven days, a copy of the warrant is placed in the clerk of court's office and is available for pickup by the bail bondsman (or his representative). He has 90 days from the issuance date of the bench warrant to either surrender the defendant to the court or place a hold on the defendant's release from any institution or facility.

On the 91st day, the court can declare the bond forfeited and can begin estreatment proceedings. The court must issue a summons to the bail bondsman and anyone else bound in the forfeited bond to appear at the next court date to show cause, if any, as to why the judgment should not be confirmed against him. Section 17-15-170

Estreatment funds are divided four ways
25 percent -- the municipality's general fund
25 percent -- the solicitor's office
25 percent -- the county
25 percent -- the state

"Municipal officials should continue to remain educated on laws governing bail bondsmen, runners (bail enforcement agents) and forfeiture procedures," Seawright said. "The SC Department of Insurance is here to assist in any way," he added.

Seawright spoke about the estreatment process at the Municipal Court Administration Association of SC's Annual Meeting in August.