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State of New Jersey v. Christopher Ratliff


November 4, 2011


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Cumberland County, Indictment No. 07-06-471.

Per curiam.


Submitted October 4, 2011

Before Judges Messano and Yannotti.

Allegheny Casualty Insurance Company (Allegheny) appeals from a May 21, 2010, order of the Law Division, which granted in part and denied in part its motion for remission of a surety bond. We affirm.

This appeal arises from the following facts. On December 22, 2008, defendant Christopher Ratliff (Ratliff) was released on bail, after he posted a $25,000 surety bond provided by Allegheny. After Ratliff's release, Allegheny's agent, AA Bail Bonds (AABB), was responsible for maintaining contact with defendant to ensure that he appeared in court when required.

According to Richard Sparano, owner of AABB, Ratliff was required to contact his office by phone. AABB's call-in log indicated that between March 16, 2009 and September 7, 2009, defendant contacted AABB's office twenty-five times. However, the log does not indicate that defendant contacted AABB in the first three months after his release or at any time after September 7, 2009.

Ratliff failed to appear in court on September 25, 2009, as required. The court thereupon issued a warrant for Ratliff's arrest, and on September 30, 2009, the court notified Allegheny that bail had been forfeited. On October 5, 2009, Ratliff was arrested and remanded to the Cumberland County jail. On March 22, 2010, Allegheny filed a motion in the Law Division seeking full remission of the bail forfeiture.

The trial court considered the matter on May 21, 2010, and determined that Allegheny should forfeit $3,750 of the $25,000 bail. The court entered an order dated May 21, 2010, memorializing its decision. This appeal followed.

Allegheny argues that the court erred by failing to grant it full remission of the forfeited bail. Allegheny contends that the court failed to consider the "substantial" amount of the bail; did not consider the "very short period of time" in which Ratliff was returned to custody; and erroneously ordered a fifteen percent forfeiture despite the fact that it engaged in appropriate supervision of defendant.

Rule 3:26-4(a) provides that a defendant who is admitted to bail, and the person or entity acting as his or her surety, must execute a recognizance that is "conditioned upon the defendant's appearance at all stages of the proceedings until final determination of the matter, unless otherwise ordered by the court." If the defendant violates a condition of bail, the court may order forfeiture of the bail. R. 3:26-6(a).

However, a bail forfeiture may be vacated "in whole or in part, if its enforcement is not required in the interest of justice . . . ." R. 3:26-6(b). The party who seeks to set aside the forfeiture "bears the burden of proving that remission is justified." State v. Ventura, 196 N.J. 203, 213 (2008). A decision to remit forfeited bail and the amount of any remission is committed to the sound discretion of the trial court. Ibid. (citing State v. Peace, 63 N.J. 127, 129 (1973)).

In considering whether to set aside a bail forfeiture and the amount, if any, of the bail that should be remitted, the court should consider the following factors:

(a) whether the applicant is a commercial bondsman; (b) the bondsman's supervision, if any, of defendant during the time of his release; (c) the bondsman's efforts to insure the return of the fugitive; (d) the time elapsed between the date ordered for the appearance of defendant and his return to court; (e) the prejudice, if any, to the State because of the absence of defendant; (f) the expenses incurred by the State by reason of the default in appearance, the recapture of the fugitive and the enforcement of the forfeiture; [and] (g) whether reimbursement of the expenses incurred in (f) will adequately satisfy the interests of justice.

[Ibid. (quoting State v. Hyers, 122 N.J. Super. 177, 180 (App. Div. 1973)).]

We are convinced from our review of the record that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by remitting eighty-five percent of the forfeited bail. Here, the court noted that Allegheny should be given full credit for taking active steps to recapture Ratliff. The court noted that Allegheny is a commercial bondsman and the amount posted was "a relatively high amount." The court additionally noted that Ratliff had been a fugitive for only five days, and Ratliff did not commit any other crimes while a fugitive.

The court further found that Allegheny had engaged in close supervision of Ratliff in the period from March 16, 2009 to September 7, 2009. The court noted, however, that there was no evidence that Allegheny engaged in any supervision of Ratliff in the first three months after his release, or in the weeks prior to September 25, 2009, when Ratliff failed to appear in court.

We are satisfied that there is sufficient credible evidence in the record for the court's findings. We are additionally satisfied that, under the circumstances, remission of eighty-five percent of the forfeited bail is reasonable, particularly in view of the surety's failure to maintain close supervision of defendant in the weeks leading up to his failure to appear on September 25, 2009.

We reject Allegheny's contention that only a nominal amount of forfeiture is warranted in this matter, as well as its contention that the forfeiture ordered here will have a chilling effect on a surety's decision to post a bond. Moreover, forfeiture of $3,750 is not, as Allegheny argues, purely a means to raise revenue. We are not convinced that forfeiture of that amount of the bond is a significant impediment to the right of defendants to be released on bail.



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