Bail bondsman Manny Ceballos was called in August to handle bail for a man who had pending traffic warrants in the cities of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas.
The North Las Vegas bail went as things normally do. But when it was the bigger city's turn, Ceballos ran into something new. A city marshal told the man's family that if they met him at a Taco Bell parking lot and paid $400, the man would be released with a new court date and could skip a trip to jail.
Ceballos went with the family to the corner of Civic Center Drive and Lake Mead Boulevard, where the marshal was waiting with the defendant. A credit card was used to make a phone payment to Las Vegas Municipal Court, clearing the warrant and setting a new court date.
"Did you just extort money from the family?" Ceballos demanded of the officer. "We're not in Mexico here. We are in Las Vegas."
That's the account that Ceballos, owner of Aztec Bail Bonds and three other bond offices, has submitted to the state Division of Insurance.
Ceballos said he notified the attorney general's office as well, but a representative of that office couldn't confirm that they had received the complaint.
Ceballos thinks Las Vegas city marshals are breaking the law.
City officials dismissed that claim as "ludicrous."
Since July 1 of last year, the marshal's unit has stepped up enforcement of pending traffic warrants as part of a plan to avoid layoffs and generate revenue .
The city's Municipal Court also handles DUIs and domestic violence charges, but the jail avoidance option is not available for those warrants.
From the city's perspective, it has been wildly successful, clearing more than 35,000 warrants, generating $1.6 million more in revenue than it costs to staff and operate the program, preventing layoffs and reducing jail costs because of fewer inmates.
That success is hurting bail bond companies, though, because marshals are allowing traffic scofflaws to pay fines and avoid any jail contact associated with their warrants.
"As far as I'm concerned, this is a very worthwhile and good program that's kept a lot of people out of jail who didn't need to be in jail," said Jim Carmany, Las Vegas' Municipal Court administrator.
Bond companies have had to cut jobs and hours, but there is more to the complaints than just loss of business, Ceballos said.
He argued that marshals are collecting bail when they accept a partial payment and let a defendant go, and state law bars law enforcement officers from being bail agents or bail enforcement agents as a wall against corruption.
Bail is defined in state code as "a deposit made with a court or other government agency to secure or continue the release of custody and to guarantee the appearance of the defendant in a criminal proceeding."
"We're supposed to be a better justice system," Ceballos said. "I'm concerned. I've been such an advocate for the Hispanic market. This abuse has been going on, and I'm worried that it could lead to corruption."
Carmany said marshals are not allowed to accept payments in the field. They can, and often do, help defendants make a call to the Municipal Court to make a payment.
"We allow defendants to make partial payments whether they're in warrant or they're not," Carmany said. "People call us all day long doing this, whether there's a marshal involved or not.
"We vetted this with the city attorney's office, and there's noting to indicate we're violating state law regarding bail."
Just because something is similar to bail doesn't mean it is bail, said City Attorney Brad Jerbic. In these cases, people are paying money that is already owed to the city.
"It sounds like a full-employment argument for bail bondsman, not a legal argument," he said. "There are a lot of things that are like bail that are not bail."
For example, people can clear a warrant on their own, in person, at the Municipal Court and get a new court date, but no one is arguing that interferes with a bondsman's business.
"If it's one (definition) in the field and a different one in the courthouse, that's just a ludicrous argument," Jerbic said.
What is not funny to the bondsmen is the loss of customers.
"My business is off 50 percent from a year ago," said Mike Taylor, who owns Black Jack Bonding. "What they need to do is get their ass out of the bail bond business."
Ceballos puts his business loss at more than 50 percent. His staff used to number more than 10 people who would each write 30 to 40 bonds a week. Now he has six employees who each get 12 to 20 bonds weekly.
"I would love to bring back some people that I had to let go," he said. "Everyone thinks that bail bondsmen are crazy, smoking cigars and carrying guns. We just want to do business."
Contact reporter Alan Choate at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-229-6435.