Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Leprechaun Could Kick Down Your Door At Any Moment

Posted By on Tue, Mar 17, 2009 at 10:59 AM

COVER PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG
  • Cover photo by Jennifer Silverberg
Last week, Fox 2 aired this report on bail bondsmen in Missouri, leading off with the alarming claim that "A felon could break down your door at any moment with police approval."

For the story, Fox correspondent Chris Hayes followed around bondsmen/bounty hunter Paul Berry as he tried (unsuccessfully) to capture a fugitive. He also interviewed bail bondsman/blogger Angela Park about the history of the controversial law that allows convicted felons to become bail bondsmen in Missouri--so long as they haven't committed a crime within the last fifteen years. The statute is commonly referred to as "The Lee Clause," after Lee Jackson, the felonious bondsmen who helped draft the law.

If this all sounds familiar, it's because last year I wrote an investigative piece delving into the exact same topic. Berry and Park were both quoted in the RFT cover story, which included this follow-up at the end of last year.  

But it's not the similarity that bothers me (after all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery), it's that big, bad opening statement about felons kicking down your door.

Sure the state of Missouri still technically allows convicted felons to become licensed bail bondsmen, but how many felons are currently working as bondsmen? And how easy is for a felon who has been clean for the last fifteen years to actually become a bondsmen these days?


I called up Matt Barton, a spokesperson for the Department of Insurance, the government entity that regulates Missouri's bondsmen, to find out.

Barton said he wasn't sure how many of the state's 850 or so bondsmen have felony convictions in their past. "I dont' think we have the right to run background checks other than licensing renewal," he said. "And I don't particularly want anything out there that says the Department licenses felons."

This was not only a little disconcerting (after all, shouldn't they keep track of those people?), but disappointing considering that when I was reporting the story last year the agency provided that exact same excuse.  

Looking back over my notes, I was told then that there was exactly one convicted felon working as a bail bondsman, Douglas Campbell of Moberly, Missouri. Searching the Department of Insurance's licensing database, it appears that Campbell is still active as a bondsman and his license doesn't expire until this year. He also has no "actions" taken against him by the Department of Insurance, meaning he's been an upstanding bondsmen.

There were, I was told last year, up to seven felons working as bondsmen at one time, but their licenses either expired or were revoked by the Department of Insurance. 

And how about the chances of a felon who has been clean for the past fifteen years becoming a bondsmen today?

Here's what Barton had to say:
"If the felony was fifteen years ago, they could get the license. Certainly we have discretion to make sure the applicant is not in anyway a threat to the community and that they are able to uphold the law and be able to fulfill the duties associated with the job. It's definitely something we'd review. I guess, what I'm saying is it would not be something that would make the applicant more attractive."
Barton also said that Fox 2 interviewed him but his remarks didn't make the final cut. 

He was particularly miffed that their story also failed to point out that there is pending legislation in the Missouri House of Representatives that would do away with the controversial "Lee Clause." The bill, HB 628, is sponsored by Rep. David Yates from Lee's Summit.

So, to sum up, unless you live in Moberly, Missouri, the chances of a felon legally kicking down your door are probably about the same as TV news covering a topic without sensationalizing it.

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