SOUTH BEND — Less than a week after being captured in Cabo San Lucas Mexico and returned to Pacific County Jail, suspected gun and drug-dealer Tony Merrill, 52, was released.
“His parents are not going to bail him out again,” Merrill’s lawyer David Mistachkin said, in Superior Court on Monday Oct. 23. At that hearing, Pacific County Prosecutor Mark McClain asked visiting court commissioner Bill Faubion to set Merrill’s bail in his two ongoing felony cases at $2 million, but Faubion set the total bail at $800,000.
By Oct. 24, sources inside the jail were saying Merrill, a former Long Beach resident, was planning to make bail. And on Oct. 25, someone ponied up the roughly $80,000 required to secure his release.
Originally, Mistachkin said if Merrill were released, he would live in a vacant Long Beach home owned by his parents, Robert and Eldora Merrill. However, at the Oct. 25 pre-release hearing, Merrill asked to live with his parents in their Vancouver home.
The Prosecutor’s Office asked that Merrill be required to wear a GPS monitoring device, saying he was a known flight-risk with a history of violating other conditions of release.
“Because Merrill has apparently established sufficient means to make the $800,000 bail imposed by this court, and because he has demonstrated flight and contact with a witness despite the prohibition, this further restricting is appropriate,” McClain wrote in an Oct. 25 motion. The judge granted the request, and ordered Merrill to remain on house arrest.
“As a Prosecutor, my job is to do everything I can to protect our community from people like Mr. Merrill. Despite the court’s decision to reduce the previously imposed bail, we are continuing to fight to ensure Mr. Merrill appears for his trial by asking for a GPS monitor,” McClain said in an email. “We were pleased that the Court approved our request for GPS so that we know where Mr. Merrill is while this matter continues to trial.”
Merrill left the jail at around 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 26. He is tentatively scheduled for a November trial, but Mistachkin said he is likely to postpone it until later this year or early next year.
So how does bail work anyway?
The price of freedom
Washington arrestees are generally eligible for bail unless they have been charged with a capital crime.
During a court hearing, a judge will set the bail amount, usually after the defense attorney and prosecutor weigh in. If the prosecutor believes the defendant is dangerous or likely to flee, he or she may push for a very high bail. The state suggests amounts for each crime, but “Judges can use criteria such as the severity of charges or allegations, criminal history, and warrant history to determine what the bail amount will be after reviewing each individual case,” according to the Washington State Courts website.
The judge can raise or lower the amount at subsequent hearings. He or she may also set conditions of release, including staying away from drugs, alcohol and any alleged victims, and regularly checking in with the court.
Two ways to leave your lockup
A “cash bail” is when a friend, family member or attorney pays the entire amount directly to the court clerk on behalf of the defendant. However, bail is often far more money than an average person can come up with on short notice. That’s why it’s very common for people to use a licensed, insured bail bond agency. There are about a dozen agencies that are authorized to provide this service in Pacific County.
A bail bond agent acts as a lender, go-between, babysitter, and in some cases, as a bounty-hunter. The agent’s first job is essentially to provide a loan for the total amount of the bail — the “bond”. Under Washington law, the cost of the loan is 10 percent of the total bail amount, although there may be additional fees. So, if someone’s bail is set at $5,000, the person who wants to bail them out would have to pay the agent an up-front “premium” of around $500.
The agent pays this money directly to the court, as a form of “insurance” intended to guarantee the defendant will show up for court dates. The court holds the deposit for the life of the court case. If the defendant does everything they’re supposed to do, the money is released back to the agent when the case is closed. The agent keeps that money as their fee.
If the person “skips bail”, the bail bond agent, and in turn, the borrower are on the hook. That’s why agents frequently ask the borrower to provide “collateral” — items of value, such as cars, mortgages, jewelry or even guns, that they can keep if the defendant does a runner.
A race against time
When a defendant disappears, the prosecutor can push for “forfeiture”, meaning his or her jurisdiction would get to keep the entire amount if the person is still missing after a waiting period.
Since the bail bond agents have a lot at stake, they have strong incentive to make sure the defendant turns up for court. They may call, visit, or take other measures to be sure the defendant doesn’t disappear.
Bail bond agents usually have about a year to track down wayward defendants and get them to court. If they succeed, they can still get part, or all of their money back. But if the suspect never turns up again, the financial consequences for the borrower can be devastating.